Several months ago I was blessed with an interview with former Secretary of State Colin Powell, one of the best communicators ever to represent the United States on the world stage. As an aside, I asked him what his reaction was to President Bush’s unfortunate phrase “bring it on” during an otherwise uneventful White House press conference.
I didn’t know Powell was in the room with the president when the offensive phrase was spoken. To my surprise, he was now willing to talk about his reaction: “It’s the kind of phrase that I immediately knew wouldn’t translate or play well in Europe. It came across as sharp, arrogant, and frankly, it had that cowboy aspect to it that I knew wouldn’t sound good to European ears.”
It didn’t sound good to American ears, either. For the last two years, a president who had so captured the heart and spirit of America with words that worked following the September 11 tragedy has instead adopted a language that is distant, impersonal and inflexible.
What the president and his administration have apparently failed to grasp is the message captured in the subtitle of my new book, “Words That Work”: It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear. When it comes to making language sing in order to promote the war effort, this White House is tone deaf.
Start with the administration’s use of the word “surge” over the past month. It was an incredibly poor euphemism for “escalation,” the discredited terminology for the war in Vietnam. True, it didn’t make it into the president’s speech, but that’s because of the immediate public outcry. Someone should have had enough common sense to realize that when people hear the word “surge,” they immediately think of troop numbers — and casualties — rather than the underlying policy behind them.
A better approach would have been to talk about the “reassessment of current policy” and “realignment of resources.” A reassessment is an acknowledgement that things have not gone well, which they haven’t, and a realignment is a more accurate, comprehensive and persuasive way of explaining the change in direction and tactics.
Words matter. We have certainly seen instances in politics where language was used to cloud public judgment and blur the facts, but its beauty — the true power of words — is when they are used to convey clarity and transparency. Words, however, become powerless — worthless even — when they lack credibility.
Worse yet is when a political figure attempts to sell something nobody wants to buy. Said Bush: “We will give our commanders and civilians greater flexibility to spend funds for economic assistance.” Economic prosperity is the single best weapon against terrorism, but it’s hard to convince the average American that we should be creating a jobs program for Iraqis at a time when there is so much unemployment in America’s Rust Belt.
One word the president should be using daily to address what happens if the United States abandons Iraq now is “consequences.” Some of the war’s harshest critics acknowledge that the situation in Iraq would deteriorate quickly if the United States “unilaterally” pulled out. While it doesn’t have the linguistic perkiness of “cut and run,” the concept of “consequences” is more somber and serious — and therefore more credible.
Not all of the president’s Iraq language is linguistically miscast. There are several credibility-building concepts that are well received by the American masses.
Foremost among them is: “A democratic Iraq will not be perfect, but it will be a country that fights terrorists instead of harboring them.” This is a tangible verbal reference to a genuine benefit of the war that Americans can appreciate and take pride in, regardless of ideological persuasion.
It is a fact that we haven’t suffered a successful terrorist attack on American soil since September 11, 2001. While many Democrats would deny him any credit, the president still earns positive marks for the aggressive prosecution of the war on terrorism. The public might also applaud his ongoing efforts against radical Islamists if he would stop using the obtuse and awkward term Islamofascists.
Linguistically, the Democratic response hasn’t been a brilliant rhetorical masterpiece, either. Their harsh rhetoric and unwillingness to suggest or even say the word “compromise” highlights their continued inability to put forward a comprehensive, credible alternative.
Senator Barbara Boxer can’t possibly believe that a single woman without children is totally incapable of feeling emotional loss just because she hasn’t had any children in combat — yet that’s exactly what she said to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Boxer could have been a constructive opponent. Instead, she chose to poke Rice straight in the eye with a sticker sharpened by partisanship and personal attack. It was a cheap shot that made even the most hardened Washington insiders cringe.
Similarly, Senator Barack Obama’s assertion that “We’re not going to babysit a civil war” is, itself, a childish sound-bite that ignores widespread American concern that a civil war today could spin into a regional war with worldwide consequences tomorrow. The image of “babysitting” lacks the seriousness befitting a conflict in which we’ve lost 3,000 American men and women and shows a lack of gravitas in a soon-to-be presidential aspirant.
In the end, the ongoing battle over the words used to debate the Iraq war, and over political language in general, is more about what side you’re on than how those words are actually delivered. But we all can agree that in times of war, the American people have the right to expect a president who is crystal clear linguistically, and an opposition party that uses words to unite and explain rather than divide and attack.
Too bad we haven’t had enough of either.
Frank Luntz is the author of “Words that Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear” (Hyperion Books).