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Healthcare reform: the pen is mightier than the bill

The healthcare reform battle is a war of words. May the best wordsmith win!

By Staff writer / March 20, 2010



Ask not whether Ted Sorensen wrote “Ask not what your country can do for you...,” the famous line from John Kennedy’s inaugural. He says today he doesn’t remember.

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But whether he wrote that gem or not, Mr. Sorensen, who was one of JFK’s closest advisers, remains perhaps the greatest Washington speechwriter of modern times.

In his memoirs, he drops this bit of advice for aspiring political wordsmiths: “Choose each word as a precision tool.”

Remember that the next time you’re listening to some politician try to sell you something. Washington speeches often aren’t arguments so much as word-delivery machines. They’re sprinkled with bons mots that in themselves are intended to induce in you, the listener, a particular emotional response.

Take the healthcare reform battle. Please. (Is it over yet? Tell me it’s over, so I can turn on C-SPAN again.)

If there is one word that Republicans have tried to associate with the healthcare legislative process, it is “jam,” as in, “They’re trying to jam this bill through.”

See? All of a sudden, you’ve got a mental image of congressional leaders Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid using a crowbar to stuff a 2,000-page bill through an Oval Office window.

Democrats, on the other hand, favored the phrase “up or down,” as in, “The Senate should take an up-or-down vote.”

Wow. I see... Boy Scouts. And Jimmy Stewart. Where’d the crowbar go?

Here’s the thing: They don’t usually come up with these words on their own. They come from the White House or the minority leader’s office, and they’re poll-tested and focus-grouped for response.

Then they’re distributed in blast e-mails so everybody has the same talking points at the same time.

In 2005, for instance, advisers handed then-President George W. Bush persuasive numbers showing that Americans were much more likely to support the war in Iraq if they thought it would succeed, as opposed to bump along for years.

So Mr. Bush started using the word “victory” a lot. In one December 2005 speech, he used it 11 times – after he’d used it 15 times in a previous address.
“Good politics is repetition,” noted Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, in a recent interview with The New York Times.

We’d vote for that sentiment, up or down.

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