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Frank Luntz: a shadow of his former self

In an interview with Salon, notorious Republican Unspeak consultant Frank Luntz sets out his new linguistic philosophy:

The most important rule of language in 2007: It must be believable.

Believable is an interesting choice of word, isn’t it? Compared to alternatives such as, say, “accurate” or “fair” or “true”, believable carefully takes no position on whether it is desirable that a speaker should be honest. The only thing that counts is whether language functions to persuade the hearer: mere plausibility is the prime virtue.

Commenting on the word-fight around “surge” vs “escalation” to describe Bush’s commitment of more troops to Iraq (announcing which, as Luntz seems to be unaware, Bush did not actually use the word “surge”), Luntz suggests:

The president would have been better off focusing on “reassessment” and “realignment” – a reassessment of where we are and where we need to go, and a realignment of troops and resources.

Oh, Mr Luntz, this is thin gruel. Have you lost your celebrated mojo? It is true that “reassessment” and “realignment” are Unspeak, in that they deliberately conceal the fact of an increase of troops in Iraq. A “realignment” could simply involve ordering all troops to turn to face Mecca, or Las Vegas; or telling them to leave Iraq, perhaps via the border with Iran. And maybe the deadeningly abstract language of “reassessment” and “realignment” would have succeeded in putting a great number of Americans to sleep so that they wouldn’t notice what was going on. Nonetheless, “reassessment” and “realignment” do lack the zip and vim for which Luntz’s Unspeak is normally renowned.

Maybe Mr Luntz is having a crisis of confidence, since elsewhere in the interview he rewrites history in order to disown one of his noblest successes:

The issue to me is not whether there is global warming or climate change; the issue is the best policy to addressing it. That’s where the debate should have been.

But Mr Luntz! You undersell your own contribution! The reason why that’s not where the debate was is partly because you yourself so brilliantly advised the Republicans to confuse the issue about whether there was global warming at all! As you so cleverly warned them [pdf]:

It’s time for us to start talking about ‘climate change’ instead of global warming […] climate change suggests a more controllable and less emotional challenge. […] Should the public come to believe that the scientific issues are settled, their views about global warming will change accordingly. Therefore, you need to continue to make the lack of scientific certainty a primary issue in the debate.

Now that’s believability. From this to his present flaccid mumblings about “realignment”? What a falling-off was there. Let us hope Mr Luntz soon recovers from his imaginative slump, for the sake of America.

  1. 1  Keith  January 23, 2007, 5:51 pm 

    I congratulate you on your restraint when referring to the Salon interview with Mr. Luntz. Not mentioning Mr. Luntz’s hair, which is itself a marvel of obfuscation–in a word: Unspeakable–must have taken some doing. Weapons are words, yes, but those who wield them must know when to opt for the sheath. With one swipe you could have felled this slumping Samson. You chose not to.

    But remember: mercy is its own (and only) reward.


  2. 2  sw  January 23, 2007, 7:07 pm 

    No, I think the point is clear, and Poole is spot-on in his restraint. Luntz was never a Samson; he was never a Rovian political genius. He was just another grinning bully emerging from the Reagan 1980s, who stumbled upon some effective moments of propaganda as part of one of the most imaginative moments of Republican history – the mid-1990s, when the Republicans were forced to confront a Democratic opponent who was a master of campaigning and could outspin the best Republican puppeteers.

    I do think that the term “Believable” is amusing, for the reasons that Poole suggests (truthiness rather than truth); but it also partly insinuates that all political parties and all political rhetoric up to this point has been equally unbelievable, when in fact the deceit of the Republicans has been . . . well, where does one begin?

  3. 3  bellascribe » Believability is for fiction  January 23, 2007, 7:43 pm 

    […] Steven Poole has it right: believability is not a replacement for accuracy in language. How believeable is it? is a question for fiction writing workshops, wherein authors are creating a fiction. Writers manipulate language to get readers to suspend disbelief. Believability is a measure or a value for fiction, a deliberate artifice. […]

  4. 4  Alex Higgins  January 24, 2007, 1:31 am 

    “The president would have been better off focusing on “reassessment” and “realignment” – a reassessment of where we are and where we need to go, and a realignment of troops and resources.”

    How do they live with themselves?

    But why not go further and argue that the entire invasion and occupation of Iraq was simply a reorganisation of CENTCOM?

    Q. So, Frank Luntz, how do you think that Bush should address the issue of war deaths?

    “Well, I prefer not to think of it as death at all, more like ‘going on to a better place’. I think the President should focus on the idea that American soldiers are going on to better place, with no pain or hurt and we should be happy there are going there.”

    ‘Also we should avoid using the word ‘war’. The President would be better off using words like ‘rabbits’ and ‘candy’.”

    Q. I see you ran down a small child with large eyes on your way to this interview – the crushed, lifeless body is still stuck to the tyres of your SUV.

    “It’s more of a realignment of the child’s vital internal organs. Leaving the child’s organs in the status quo position was no longer an option.”

    Q. Are you concerned that when you die, you might go to Hell and burn there for all eternity?

    “I like to think of it as ‘climate change for the soul’.”

  5. 5  Richard  January 24, 2007, 2:45 pm 

    I don’t think we have a loss of mojo here, I think Luntz is shedding old baggage prior to a new charm offensive – his very own realignment. Sometimes it’s useful to paint yourself as a ‘realist’ (that most loaded of categories), standing above all that political double-talk, focused on “the best policy:” who can argue with that?

    As for climate change v global warming, I think the apparent defection of Exxon is a large factor: if a particular bit of unspeak loses its currency, let it go; there’s always more. Why not be seen to be doing something? It’s still a far cry from going through the painful expense of actually doing it, and you get to look like the good guy (for a while).

  6. 6  Steven  January 25, 2007, 1:05 am 

    Bellascribe is spot-on at #3, and Alex’s satirical miniatures just get funnier. But as I say in the latest post, Luntz is clearly old news now. What I’d like to know is the identity of the genius who came up with “reinforcements”.

  7. 7  Alex Higgins  January 25, 2007, 1:48 pm 

    Why, thank-you, Steven!

    Can i claim any credit for the ‘Mr and Mrs’ C skit in the Overthrow thread? :-)

  8. 8  Steven  January 25, 2007, 3:21 pm 

    Well, you can claim some, but when it becomes a hit West End microfarce, I’ll see you in court. ;)

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