Monday, August 11, 2014

How to Talk Like a Politician

by Tom Haushalter 

American voters like their even-numbered years. These are when our elections, either presidential or mid-term, seem to matter most, when billions of dollars are thrown at candidates to elevate them to seats in the U.S. House or Senate—and one (un)lucky soul to the Oval Office.

In odd-numbered years, in which we hold "off-year" elections, we install governors and state legislators and mayors, and mercifully most of those campaigns aren't steered by special interests or dragged to CNN levels of uber-analysis. Accessible and tangibly specific, local elections tend to restore our faith in democracy.

But who are we kidding? Even-numbered years rule. We're crazy for the bloodsport of our national electoral process. We hover on the edge of our seats for what seems like months (and may in fact be that long), refreshing Politico and Nate Silver and Twitter every minute, living and dying by the newest poll results, cringing when our candidate gaffes, hoping for the other guy soon to do the same.

And election seasons like the one we're heading into are prime time for politician soundbites—those condensed talking points designed to lure us into a way of thinking while also providing us with prepackaged catchphrases to redistribute freely! Not only the messaging itself, but the style of the message, the sorts of filler words and prefatory phrases you might learn in a book called How to Talk Like a Politician (which surprisingly doesn't exist).

We're all familiar with what a "maverick" is. And a "wing nut." And "bridge builders" who "reach across the aisle." And in the weeks leading up to Election Day, we brace for that "October Surprise." But in the lexicon of politician-speak, these are pretty rudimentary. How well can you call out the subtler and even more patronizing terminology of our elected officials?

Authors Chuck McCutcheon and David Mark, both longtime Beltway journalists, have written the guide to understanding the coded language of American politics and its punditry. Dog Whistles, Walk-Backs, and Washington Handshakes is an annotated—and very entertaining—glossary of the things these people get away with saying, while most of us sit back and second-guess none of what they really mean. McCutcheon and Mark are here to tell us what they really mean.

Here are a few shining examples to program into your personal B.S. detector (excerpted from the book):

"The American People"

Every politician, even the ones in complete disagreement, claims to speak for the people. It's invoked often enough to have achieved drinking game status. Vanderbilt University communications studies professor Paul Stob says "the people" has become "the keyword for all populist discourse." Other subsets to describe political audiences: hardworking Americans, American families, the good people of [fill in blank with any state or city], God-fearing Americans, "real Americans," and so on.

"My good friend"

Politician-speak for somebody they often can't stand. "My good friend" is used commonly on the House or Senate floors when addressing a colleague. Usually it's a thinly veiled way of showing contempt for the other lawmaker while adhering to congressional rules of decorum. Sometimes it's not even clear that a lawmaker (especially one in a chamber of 435 members like the House) even knows his or her supposedly "good friend."

"Let me be clear"

A frequent expression of exasperation from a politician who believes he or she isn't making a fully understood argument. It's the rhetorical heir to Richard Nixon's famous "Let me make one thing perfectly clear." "Let me be clear" is President Barack Obama's most common verbal tic. "It is his emphatic wind-up for, well, everything," the AP's Ben Feller wrote in 2009. [I would also add President George W. Bush's standby "Make no mistake" to the repertoire of rhetorical wind-ups.]

"The most important election of our lifetime"

A cliche that partisans from both sides trot out before each presidential election, warning ominously of effects if the other side were to win.

"I'm sorry if I offended anyone"

A classic non-apology apology that makes it clear the public figure is sorry for being caught, not for what he or she actually said. Any time "if" is included in an "apology" it's safe to say the person isn't particularly sorry. Adding it "or any other conditional modifier to an apology makes it a non-apology," author John Kador writes in his 2009 book Effective Apology: Mending Fences, Building Bridges, and Restoring Trust [a book subtitle rather overflowing with politician-speak, I might add].

And if I were to wager a guess as to the favorite adverb of elected officials, I would say, unequivocally (though that's not the adverb, but close): "fundamentally." How easily it rolls off the tongue—and softly, like a feather pillow of tough talk—when the senator from somewhere twangs "My good friend from the great state of Kansas and I fundamentally disagree on what is best for the American people."

Want to suggest your own piece of political jargon? Go to, and maybe it'll end up in the next book!

Dog Whistles, Walk-Backs, and Washington Handshakes: Decoding the Jargon, Slang, and Bluster of American Political Speech releases in September.