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WASHINGTON — There’s a skill that’s secretly treasured in this town.
It’s not openly admired because that would only breed more cynicism
among the unwashed living outside the Beltway — that is, real folks who
For you see, this skill glorifies disingenuousness and
discourteousness and punishes candor and consideration. And it’s the
first thing media consultants teach pundits and politicians before they
debate each other, or go on “Meet the Press.”
Few master it, because it demands steely discipline and icy
detachment — not to mention an inflated sense of your own self-worth.
It’s called “getting your message across,” or “focusing your message.”
The trick is to come up with about three key talking points and cut
them down to sound bite length of less than 30 seconds. Then you pound
them like well-driven nails, over and over, until they penetrate. And
then you hit them some more. And then again.
Media consultants coach politicians to make their points, and nothing
else — no matter what their opponent, or Jim Lehrer, or Tim Russert,
asks them, because people won’t remember what the other guy asked them,
just what they said.
Sounds easier than it is, especially under the klieg lights. Few can
pull it off. Both Bill and Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, have
But no one gets his message across like Al Gore. In fact, his focus
is so intense it’s often painful to watch.
Unlike Bill Clinton, his style isn’t pretty. But it’s nonetheless
effective. You remember what Gore says — even if you’re not really
paying attention to what he’s saying, or don’t like what he’s saying,
or, as is more often the case, don’t even believe what he’s saying.
And that’s one of the reasons Clinton picked Gore in ’92. Listen to
the high praise Clinton’s campaign manager gave him.
“He was, in my opinion, the best: somebody disciplined on the
message, as good a national candidate as I’ve ever seen out of either
party,” James Carville said. “It’s extremely rare for a Democrat, but he
had unbelievable message discipline.”
On the ’92 campaign trail, Gore demonstrated that “message
discipline” by trashing the “Republican economy.” Over and over, he
revised history by calling it the “worst economy since the great
Towards the end of the race, he even got somewhat animated, raising
and lowering his arms like a hydraulic lift, as he shouted: “Everything
that should be up … is down! And everything that should be down … is
Even though it wasn’t true, voters got the message and fired Bush.
In 1996, Clinton turned to Gore again to demagogue, in like fashion,
the Dole tax-cut plan. And he did not disappoint.
In his debate (if you can even call it that) with Jack Kemp, Gore
called the GOP tax plan a “risky scheme” that will “blow a hole in the
deficit.” He shamelessly flogged those themes throughout the night. Kemp
stood there with his face flapping, and the rest is history.
In Beantown the other night, Gore put on another clinic.
Quick, what’s the one phrase you remember hearing during the debate?
Probably the one you heard most. That’s right, “tax cuts for the
wealthiest 1 percent.”
Gore hit that point no less than five times in 90 minutes in order to
sour voters on Bush’s proposed tax cut — the center plank in his
Gore didn’t stop at claiming the Bush plan is sop for the rich. He
went one step further, arguing it would somehow come “at the expense” of
Oh, one thing I forget to mention earlier: It’s decidedly easier to
hone your message and say memorable things when you’re not tethered by
the truth. That’s another reason few politicians have really mastered
getting across their message: Most are more honest than Gore and the
Clintons, and that’s saying a lot. (Ronald Reagan, on the other hand,
was a rare bird who could make his message resonate while, by and large,
still clinging to the facts.)
Gore sprung his “wealthiest 1 percent” line about three times in just
the first 10 minutes or so of the debate. Amazingly, Bush let that duck
flap around the stage. He didn’t shoot it down until about 45 minutes
into the game.
Too late. It’s now on the tongues of the media wags and will soon be
stuck in voters’ minds, too, if it isn’t already, rest assured.
Yet, Bush and his advisers had to have known the barb was coming.
Gore is a shameless class warrior brimming with anti-rich agitprop.
Bush could have easily shot the “wealthiest 1 percent” salvo down
every time Gore let it rip, by simply saying:
- Everyone gets a tax cut under my plan, not just the wealthy, and
yet my opponent provides relief to less than half of all taxpayers. So
who’s plan is unfair?
Instead, Bush’s most memorable talking point consisted of
telling us he’s from “Texas” or “West Texas” — three times in the first
10 minutes alone.
Yes, and the way he’s debating, he might be staying there awhile.