Friday, January 28, 2011

Taking the SOTU With, Not a Grain But A Bag of Salt

Vedran Vuk, writer of Doug Casey, explains his skepticism about all State of the Union addresses, a skepticism I share to a great extent:
Guess what I didn’t do last night? That’s right, watch the State of the Union address. However, I’ll take this moment to congratulate the team of mid-20s English and Political Science students who wrote the speech. I’m sure that they did an excellent job. Let’s not forget the researchers too. Also, someone had to get the polling data to determine the best-selling sound bites. Of course, remember the proofreaders that agonized on each sentence and word to ensure its impact. Excellent job, team. You deserve a round of applause and drinks.

Sadly, I’m not trying to ridicule the speech. This is really what happens in D.C. For a short time, I ghostwrote articles and helped design talking points in Washington. Essentially, the process starts with a team of researchers. They dig for any data that defends a certain viewpoint. They’re not there to find the “solution” to a problem – just the info that makes their side look good. A research team chooses the best figures or facts and passes them off to a professional writer.

The writer creates a speech, op-ed, or sound bite specifically tailored to the moderate centrist voter. I was always told, “Imagine that you’re writing for your grandmother who doesn’t care about politics and reads the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Don’t write anything controversial. Don’t write anything complex. Avoid big words.”

Sometimes, if it’s close enough to campaign season, the writer will have expensive non-public polls to aid his work. The same poll questions are often worded in numerous ways to find the strongest response. Furthermore, the polls help identify the most burning points. For example, what’s bothering the voter most about the bank bailouts: is it the dollar amount, the bonuses, or the lack of results? With this data, a good writer can shape a hard-hitting piece.

But it doesn’t end there. After the writer has spent a day or two on it, the piece is circulated to a team of other professional writers. Parts are removed and added. Specific words are carefully debated and examined with microscopic precision. When the piece is done, it is finally handed to the political figure or person who will be the “author.” Sometimes, they’ll change one or two sentences…

I’ve made the sausage myself; so I have no interest in these speeches. I only listen when a politician is caught off guard. When a Joe the Plumber starts asking question out of nowhere, then it’s time to listen. But even these responses are often manufactured. Manipulating the American public is down to a science in D.C. As a result, I tune out for these events whenever possible.
The SOTU was clearly a masterful political success. But other than helping Obama's political fortunes, it's hard to take it seriously as a roadmap for the future. But, hey, like a good sermon (or what our culture thinks is a good sermon), people leave feeling good about everything. And perhaps, as William James would say, believing something to be good may help make it good. Or, on the other hand, maybe it just helps you to avoid the tough decisions until they come and smack you in the face.

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