< The Language Legacy

Transcript

Friday, December 19, 2008

BOB GARFIELD:
This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Every presidency has multiple legacies – Supreme Court appointees, key legislation – and political phrases. Yep, the bully pulpit is a great place to seize semantic control of the debate, a point that was not lost on the Bush Administration. It actually began before he took office.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH:
I call my philosophy and approach “Compassionate Conservatism.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
We should have known then that we were in store for some serious political rebranding. Early on, legislation to increase logging was christened “The Healthy Forests Initiative.” Who could be against a healthy forest? Nor does anyone want to leave children behind or oppose clean skies.

But Bush branded more than just legislation. There was the Department of Homeland Security, the Axis of Evil, and the War in Iraq, officially known as Operation Iraqi Freedom. And while a good name can't always change public perception, word swapping does have legal benefits. If you call a prisoner of war an enemy combatant, they don't have the same rights.

Press Secretary Scott McClellan explained this in 2003 when confronted with a report from the Red Cross objecting to the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo.
SCOTT McCLELLAN:
Let's remember these individuals are enemy combatants during a time of war. And the President of the United States is committed to doing everything we can to protect the American people from future attacks, and part of that is the information we're obtaining from these enemy combatants.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
And if you’re wondering how they obtained that information, don't. The Bush Administration assured us over and over that since the United States does not torture, anything we do, by definition, is just enhanced interrogation.

But with Bush leaving office in a month, do all those redefinitions and catchy terms get called home like ambassadors whose stints abroad have ended, or do they just, like Supreme Court justices, live on and on and on?

Frank Luntz, Republican pollster and phrase-maker of great renown, has an answer to that question. Welcome to the show.
FRANK LUNTZ:
It’s a pleasure. Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
So we saw you in the new War Room documentary where you said you were inspired by the Clinton Administration’s linguistic successes to do the same for the other side. And clearly you've succeeded, popularizing terms like “the death tax” instead of “the estate tax” and “climate change” instead of “global warming.”

So, first off, do you think that eight years of Bush have been able to undo any of the language that came from eight years of Clinton?
FRANK LUNTZ:
I don't think that George W. Bush will have the same linguistic impact on the American people that Bill Clinton did, because, quite frankly, Clinton was a better communicator. He felt people’s pain. He understood how to reach them.

Even in the tone – even in not just the phrasing but the way he delivered, his voice would get kind of just a little bit hoarse, and it would shake just a little bit, and that told you that he really was trying to get personal with you.
PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON:
You know people who've lost their jobs and lost their homes.
FEMALE CORRESPONDENT:
Well, yeah, uh-huh.
PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON:
Well, I've been governor of a small state for 12 years. I'll tell you how it’s affected me. In my state, when people lose their jobs, there’s a good chance I'll know them by their names. When a factory closes, I know the people who ran it. When the businesses go bankrupt, I know them.
FRANK LUNTZ:
He’s a master at it, and George W. Bush just wasn't the communicator that Bill Clinton was.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Well, now you’re talking about delivery. What about the phrases themselves? What are the Clintonian locutions that stick in your mind as masterful?
FRANK LUNTZ:
Well, I still remember how he was the first person to turn “spending” into “investment,” and now everybody does it. You'll never hear Barack Obama using the word “spending.” Everything, every amount that the government now spends is an “investment.”

And the other thing about Clinton was that he called for an end to welfare as we know it, and yet he increased spending on the poor, so that this is someone who understood where the American people were at, and he just found good ways of reaching us.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
So what are some of the linguistic switcharoos executed by the Bush Administration that you think may outlive his presidency?
FRANK LUNTZ:
I don't think all that much of George Bush’s linguistic mastery will live beyond him. The problem with Bush is that he talked about privatizing Social Security before he talked about personalizing it, so that undermined that way of articulating. He talked about a bailout rather than calling it a recovery plan or a rescue plan. He talked about a surge in Iraq rather than calling it a realignment and reassessment.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
I thought the surge was regarded as generally a good term.
FRANK LUNTZ:
The surge was regarded as a good strategy. [BROOKE LAUGHS] It was not regarded as a good term because it focused on troops, and only the number of troops, rather than a whole reassessment of the strategy. And I think that the word “surge” actually undermined his ability to communicate his position on Iraq.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Well, what do you think about the phrase “war on terror?” I know that the administration fiddled around with some other names briefly – “struggle against violent extremism,” “the long war.” None of those really stuck.

Do you expect that President Obama will use “war on terror” in his speeches or do you anticipate a rebranding?
FRANK LUNTZ:
I think that he will engage in a rebranding and a re-phraseology of the political lexicon, and I expect Obama also to have the potential to create a lexicon that outlives his presidency.

He understands how to say things that don't really tell you exactly where he stands but makes you connect with him and makes you want him to succeed.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
But have you heard any phrases yet that seem to be sticky?
FRANK LUNTZ:
Well, yeah. When Barack Obama says, this is not an election about Republicans versus Democrats or left versus right or young versus old –
BARACK OBAMA:
Together, ordinary people can do extraordinary things, because we are not a collection of red states and blue states. We are the United States of America.
[CHEERING]
FRANK LUNTZ:
That phraseology, that context setting, I think, is one of the reasons why he was successful in the campaign.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Now, obviously the bully pulpit is a great place from which to install a new phrase. Do you think that inevitably if a president repeats a term over and over that it automatically enters the popular lexicon?
FRANK LUNTZ:
I don't believe it’s the repetition. I believe it’s the creativity. “Ask not what your country can do for you” was spoken once and was never forgotten. “All we have to fear is fear itself” – again, a single utterance – or “December 7th, a day that will live in infamy.” Infamy was not a traditional, typical word in the American lexicon in 1941.

The only way that a word actually goes from being a traditional expressive word to something that we pick up is if it’s out of the ordinary. They've got to deliver them in a powerful way that grabs us and doesn't let go. “Infamy” is that kind of word.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
But “investment” isn't. I mean, saying “investment” instead of “spending” is a clever way of reframing the debate, but it isn't as if you’re using an unusual word.
FRANK LUNTZ:
No, but in that case it’s that Bill Clinton used the word “investment” again and again and again and again and again. And he actually would say publicly, I'm not asking for additional dollars. This is not more wasteful Washington spending. This is an investment in our children, an investment in the future.

So he was actually using a very plain, pedestrian word and trying to soup it up by what it was for rather than trying to score with the word itself.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
I was trying to come up with some Republican phrases that didn't quite stick this time around, and what I came up was “Islamo-fascist” and “The Democrat Party.”
FRANK LUNTZ:
Well, “Islamo-fascist” was never going to work, and I know that a bunch of politicians tried desperately to get that word to enter into the lexicon. And it just – it doesn't roll off the tongue. You’re combining one principle from today’s world with another one that people more associated with World War II, and it just, it didn't sound right. It didn't register.

And then as far as “The Democrat Party,” that was something that Ronald Reagan did back in the 1980s. Bush tried to do it this time. That is an example of much ado about nothing. It doesn't change the public’s perception of the people you’re speaking of or the political policies. It doesn't change voters’ intent. So much was written about that on the blogs, and I kind of felt sorry for people because they were really wasting their time.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
[LAUGHS] Looking forward, the Democratic Party has apparently done away with “economic stimulus” for the less technical and more hopeful-sounding term, “economic recovery.” If you can put yourself in their shoes for a second, what are the biggest challenges that the Democratic Party faces when it comes to language?
FRANK LUNTZ:
The challenge for them is not to over-promise, and use language that makes people feel more hopeful and more secure without getting them to believe that tomorrow happy days will be here again, because we know they won't.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Can you think of any phrases that can summon up those two perhaps conflicting ideas?
FRANK LUNTZ:
Obama used a word in the convention speech. It was a single word after giving a litany of what had happened in America, and in that one word he articulated what everyone felt at that that moment. He said, “Enough.”
BARACK OBAMA:
Tonight I say to the people of America, to Democrats and Republicans and Independents across this great land, enough! This moment!
[CHEERING]
FRANK LUNTZ:
He didn't repeat it. He stopped. And I looked around, and everyone was nodding. It touched exactly how they felt. But for the most part, it’s very hard to sound-bite him because he talks in much more general principles. They're very unifying.

Nobody remembers a specific word or phrase from his speech the night of the election when he accepted the victory, but everybody remembers what a great speech that was. That’s going to be typical of Obama over the next four years. They won't remember a specific word or phrase, but they will remember a speech and they will think to themselves, you know what? He touched me there.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Frank, thank you so much.
FRANK LUNTZ:
It’s my pleasure. Thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:
Frank Luntz is a Republican pollster and author of Words that Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear.