Talking Points—How Washington (Mis)Leads America

May 12th, 2014

Former Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner’s new book, Stress Test, details White House officials’ frequent insistence in putting words in his mouth on Sunday talk shows to please the president’s liberal base. It’s yet another example of this White House’s (mis)communication efforts.

For the past several weeks, we’ve seen much focus on an email from a White House operative controlling the pre-election message of Susan Rice on the Sunday talk shows after the Benghazi tragedy.  The Geithner book only serves as further proof that the White House spin efforts regarding Benghazi wasn’t some isolated incident.

Granted, “spinning” is nothing new in Washington.  Everyone does it, and they’ve done it for years on both sides of the aisle.

Back in the Dark Ages, when I was Chairman of the Young Republicans, our office could reliably count on receiving daily “talking point” memos from the Republican National Committee.  On a management level, this makes perfect sense.  You certainly don’t want some yeehaw spouting off utter nonsense that will be picked up by the press and wind up making everyone look bad.

Still, sometimes when you’re on the receiving end of those talking points, you really need a drink to get through them because you honestly don’t know how you’re supposed to say certain things with a straight face or without harming your credibility or challenging your personal integrity.

That’s not to say that I was ever asked to flat out lie or skirt around the truth in a way that absolutely failed the smell test as the Benghazi matter appears to have done.  Instead, at times, I would see something that I knew would look nothing more than self-serving (and therefore a bit laughable) if I was actually asked to repeat it.

While it’s wise to keep everyone on the same page, it leaves the public with the impression that in this world there are Democrat lemmings and Republican lemmings.  Thinking and speaking for yourself is rare and within the inner circle highly frowned upon.

I wonder if politics has always been this way.  Back in Washington and Lincoln’s times there were no emails or fax machines, but they did write lots of letters. News travelled very slowly and so oftentimes events weren’t even discussed at all until weeks after they happened.  This meant that facts could be “spun” long after the event without too much concern about whether or not the truth could be determined.  It also meant that a lot of gossip and rumors could be taken as fact without a good way to counter it with the truth later. This explains much of William Randolph Hearst’s success.

For politicians, this wasn’t entirely bad.  For example, schoolchildren still read about George Washington’s honesty through the legendary story where he chops down a cherry tree.  While it allowed for lots of things to remain covered up (e.g., Franklin Pierce’s drinking, Franklin Roosevelt’s relationship with his secretary, and most recently John Kennedy’s womanizing), it also didn’t allow for a very unified (albeit frequently unbelievable) story to be told after some political disaster happened.  In fact, (gasp) oftentimes administration officials often said exactly what was on their minds (e.g., Secretary of State Edwin Stanton) much to the chagrin of the Commander in Chief (i.e., Abraham Lincoln).

If nothing else, today political spin helps us collectively determine exactly how stupid and gullible our elected officials think we are.  The final proof of that isn’t, of course, in what they say but rather what we do with the information at the ballot box and how history later judges us for our electoral decisions.