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Napoleon and spin control

by bdietrich on October 18, 2012

It’s too bad Napoleon Bonaparte can’t join in on the post-debate spin control practiced by newscasters and political party muggles after the Obama-Romney debates. He invented the idea of planting his version of reality in the public mind, and would probably be an amused commentator on candidate performance.

Napoleon looms over every Ethan Gage novel because his adventures helped form our modern world. The Corsican outsider rose to ruler of France from military genius, but also because of shrewd political instinct. He’s been a template for politicians ever since.

Bonaparte was a master at communicating with his troops, addressing them with a “Soldiers!” salutation to head each paragraph of his communiqués, and was legendary for mingling with common privates and picking out some by name with his astonishing memory.

At the eve of the Battle of Austerlitz, while enemy generals retired to their tents, Napoleon prowled his front line. When he was recognized his excited soldiers lit brushwood to illuminate his way, eventually turning an incognito inspection tour into a spontaneous torch-lit parade. Morale soared, and opposing troops were disquieted.

Bonaparte was equally conscious of the need to communicate with the French public, even when dictator and emperor. He took great pains, just like politicians today, to give them his version of events.

He was famed for issuing “Bulletins” that gave the best possible spin on the outcome of military battles, generally downplaying his own casualties and inflating those of the enemy. Since hostile newspapers had been shuttered and there was no embedded press corps with his army, it took a long time for contrary information to catch up with Napoleonic spin. Eventually the gap between reality and propaganda became so large that the phrase “to lie like a Bulletin” entered French culture, but in the meantime commoner Bonaparte was a master at forming public opinion.

To confirm his rule he held plebiscites in which an overwhelming number of Frenchmen voted for him, a kind of slanted “polling” to confound his critics.

While Romney and Obama trade red ties and blue ties, Bonaparte too was conscious of fashion. To legitimize himself as a royal during his imperial coronation, his costume cost more than 100,000 francs. But in military reviews and in the field, Bonaparte usually tried for the common touch by dressing in plain army uniforms of green and blue that was much less flamboyant than his generals. His feigned modesty was the same as the jeans and rolled-up-sleeve campaign dress of politicians today.

At the same time he emphasized the trappings of power. Bonaparte created a militaristic culture in France with constant parades, army anthems, battle flags, sharp uniforms, imperial eagles, Roman panoply, and saluting cannon. The Republican and Democrat conventions? The ancestry of their inspiration can be traced back to this kind of showmanship.

Napoleon would probably sharply critique Romney’s tendency to bullying bluster in the debates, and Obama’s remote professorial cool. Contemporaries record that he could switch his manner from one visitor to another, depending on whether he wanted to charm or intimidate.

Like all leaders, he was an actor, and invented a Legion of Honor with his own picture, natch, at the center of the new medal. His initial, ‘N,’ became as ubiquitous as Coca-Cola signs today.

Bonaparte was not always a charmer himself. He could be rude, volcanic, dismissive, or impatient. He ate hurriedly. But at a time most royals developed no public skills at all, Napoleon could give a rousing speech, fix a follower in the eye, and inspire with ribbons and medals. This was new on the European stage. He gave his armies such sense of confidence that the Duke of Wellington judged his presence on the field was worth 50,000 men.

When the Egyptian campaign was clearly flagging, Napoleon made sure he got back to France ahead of the bad news to seize power in a coup. When his armies met disaster in Russia, he hurried back to Paris before doomsayers could get there. And when he escaped from Elba to rally his troops for one last try at Waterloo, he gambled that his veterans would not stop him, walking up to their blocking ranks and daring them to shoot him or arrest him. They rallied to his side instead.

Leaders since have won power by winning over the public. Hitler, Churchill, Roosevelt, Reagan, Clinton: each have had their own skills, keyed to their own personalities. But all have realized it’s not just what you do, it’s how you spin it.

Napoleon was one of the first.

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