Dr. Luntzenstein

The Inlander | February 23, 2007
Don’t underestimate the power of words. That’s the message of Frank Luntz’s new book, Words That Work. To prove his point, Luntz takes you back to early 1994, when he was on a brisk, morning walk with Newt Gingrich, pondering the future of the Republican Party. He had told Gingrich that the GOP was “failing to understand, connect with, empathize with and listen to the American people… I asserted that any overarching platform had to look, sound and actually be different from anything that had come before.”

Out of that 10-minute walk was born the idea that later became the Contract With America — I would argue, the single most important political statement of the past 20 years. Or was it the best political stunt of the past 20 years?

That is the question that lurks between the lines of this instruction manual for politicians who want to communicate more clearly with the American people. Or is that to confuse more completely the Americans people?

Publishing Words That Work is a bit like Peyton Manning FedExing a copy of his team’s playbook to the Chicago Bears before the Super Bowl. Luntz’s advice has made the Republicans a fearsome force, and that Contract was the pinnacle, ushering in 12 years of Republican domination. For average Americans who have to decipher all these clever words every four years, Words That Work offers a peek behind the curtain, allowing us all to see the lengths the election industry will go to in pursuit of a vote.

But why pull back the curtain at all? Could it be that Luntz, like President Bush, is worrying about his legacy, especially all those critics who keep calling him “Orwellian” for his use of the English language? This hits a nerve, and he spends many pages refuting the argument, ultimately concluding that George Orwell was a master of the English language, so he’ll go ahead and take the compliment. (Nice try, but critics really mean he’s “Big Brotherian,” in reference to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Somehow “Orwellian” became the preferred term to indicate any use of language that tries to hide, evade or mislead, in the words of doublespeak expert William Lutz.)

Luntz’s genius — and I think he really is a genius — is in his exhaustive use of focus groups filled with average Americans. He peppers them with words, and, as the title suggests, finds which ones are the most emotionally charged — the words that work. His catchphrase, repeated throughout the book, is, “It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear.” What’s so Orwellian about that?

Orwell said he wrote Nineteen Eight-Four, “to alter other people’s idea of the kind of society they should strive after.” Orwell wanted people to strive after the opposite of his dysfunctional land of Oceania — that means a moral and honest society. So I think he would take a moralistic slant on Luntz’s catchphrase: “It’s not what you say, it’s what you mean,” is how he may have put it.

Saying the opposite of what you mean is commonly known as lying. Political communication in the service of a lie is propaganda, and propaganda was Big Brother’s secret weapon — and Orwell’s nightmare. That’s what critics accuse Luntz of peddling.

So was the Contract With America propaganda? Was it honest, or did it aim to mislead people? Based on reading this book, I’m willing to believe Luntz’s intentions to connect and empathize with the public were pure. Yet he should have seen the truth coming when, as he details in the book, one of his major planks — that voters should fire the Republicans if they didn’t follow through — was dropped.

The best way to answer the question is to ask how much of the Contract was ever enacted. Not much, it turns out. The second plank talked about eliminating waste, fraud and abuse — guess Jack Abramoff doesn’t count. Then there was an entire act to limit terms of members of Congress to create a “citizen legislature” — former Congressman and term limits poster boy George Nethercutt loved that one (but only for six years). And of course there were calls for fiscal prudence, with zero baseline budgeting and a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution — but there’s no rush, Republicans seemed to figure, after finding out that China will loan us billions to fund bridges to nowhere and wars without end.

Although the Contract proved that well-chosen words can matter immensely, it’s hard not to conclude that, in the long run, it was more stunt than statement.

But that was a long time ago. Since then, the Luntz blueprint has been co-opted by the Bush White House and perfected to truly Big Brotherian proportions. The most visible manifestation is whenever the administration announces a new law to cut back on pollution controls and the backdrop has the words “Clear Skies Act” stenciled all over it. It’s also easy to find in the rhetoric: Being a “uniter and not a divider” actually meant that Bush would be extremely divisive. “Liberal media” actually means that conservative rich people own the mainstream press. “Support the troops” actually means sending soldiers into combat without body armor or reinforced Humvees. (Feel free to add your own favorite examples to this list.)

Finally, consider how chillingly close we have come to living out the central tenet of Big Brother’s Oceania: “War is Peace.”

Readers of Nineteen Eighty-Four have long felt those absurdly juxtaposed words captured a nation so confused that just about anything could make sense. Today we’re told that if we don’t fight the enemy in Iraq (or Iran), they will somehow build a navy and come fight us here. This isn’t fiction, yet there it is: War is Peace.

Luntz holds a doctorate from Oxford, and like another doctor named Frank, he has created a horrifying monster. But in Words That Work, perhaps he’s offering us an antidote. Luntz is putting his trade secrets into the open source realm. Is that a betrayal of his own party? Well, in the book he breaks with the Bush camp in small but significant ways, at one point saying “Bring,” “It” and “On” were the three worst words of his entire presidency. He also talks of a return to aspirational political rhetoric, which is quite different from the Bush 2004 campaign message: “Vote Bush or Die.” Another clue can be found in how often he lovingly quotes the words of Aaron Sorkin, the liberal TV writer behind The West Wing.

Do these passages reveal a guilty conscience?

After a couple decades of helping confuse Americans with empty slogans, now Luntz wants us to follow the advice of Edward R. Murrow: “Our major obligation is not to mistake slogans for solutions.”

The Inlander

Founded in 1993, The Inlander has quickly become the most trusted source of news and entertainment information for the sprawling Inland Northwest. While the majority of our readership lives in the Spokane/Coeur d’Alene area -- a fast-growing part of the...
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