By Ted S. McGregor Jr. & r & & r & & lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & D & lt;/span & on'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 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 became the Contract With America -- I would argue, the single most important political statement of the past 20 years. Or was it a political stunt?
That is precisely the question that seems to have prompted Luntz to write this instruction manual for politicians who want to communicate more clearly with the American people. Or is that to confuse them more completely?
Publishing Words That Work is a bit like Peyton Manning FedExing a copy of his team's playbook to the Chicago Bears a week 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.
But Luntz, like President Bush, seems to be thinking about his legacy, and many say he is Orwellian in his use of the English language. This hits a nerve, as 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.)
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & L & lt;/span & untz's genius -- and I think he's a genius -- is in his exhaustive use of focus groups of average Americans to discover, as the title suggests, emotionally charged words that work. His catchphrase is, "It's not what you say, it's what people hear." What's so Orwellian about that?
Orwell wrote that Nineteen Eight-Four was written, "to alter other people's idea of the kind of society they should strive after." I think a moral and honest society is what Orwell wanted, so I think he would take a moralistic slant on Luntz's catchphrase, tweaking it to read, "It's not what you say, it's what you mean."
Political communication in the service of a lie is propaganda, and propaganda was Big Brother's secret weapon. It'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 were pure. Yet he should have seen the truth coming when one of his major planks -- that voters should fire the Republicans if they didn't follow through -- was dropped.
How much of the Contract was ever enacted? 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" -- 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 what's the rush, after all China will loan us billions to fund bridges to nowhere and wars without end.
It's hard not to conclude that, in the long run, Luntz's Contract With America was nothing more than a political stunt.
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & B & lt;/span & ut that was a long time ago. Since then, the Luntz blueprint has been co-opted by the Bush White House 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 "Clean Skies Act" stenciled all over it. It's also easy to find in the rhetoric: Being a "uniter and not a divider" has meant that Bush is a divider. "Liberal media" actually means that conservative rich people run the media. "Support the troops" actually means sending them into combat without body armor or reinforced Humvees.
And consider how chillingly close we have come to living out the central slogan of Big Brother's Oceania: "War is Peace."
Readers have long felt those absurdly juxtaposed words perfectly capture a nation so confused that just about anything makes sense. But this isn't fiction, and today we are told that if we don't fight the enemy in Iraq (or Iran), they will somehow build a navy and come fight us here. And there it is: War is Peace.
& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & L & lt;/span & untz holds a doctorate from Oxford, and like another doctor named Frank, he has created a horrifying monster. But in Words That Work, perhaps Luntz is offering us the antidote. He even breaks with the Bush camp, saying "Bring it on" were the three worst words of his presidency; his talk of a return to aspirational politics also seems very different from the Bush 2004 campaign message of, essentially, vote for me or die. And he often writes about how much he loves the words of Aaron Sorkin, the liberal TV writer behind The West Wing.
Are these the words of a guilty conscience?
For average Americans who have to decipher all the clever words before they vote, it's a peek behind the curtain, allowing us all to see how our own big brothers do their business.
After a couple decades of helping confuse Americans, now Luntz wants us to follow the advice of Edward R. Murrow: "Our major obligation is not to mistake slogans for solutions."