The older I get, the more I am irked by the incessant use of “talking points.” It’s bad enough that we all know that “talking points” are prepared for every governmental figure who is the subject of an interview, but it’s even worse when the “talking points” are used so often that the canned nature of the supposedly spontaneous “interview” becomes obvious to even the dullest citizen. And it is even worse when the “talking points” use a phrase that is so devoid of meaning that they reflect an intent to obfuscate rather than enlighten.
So it was this morning, when NPR’s Morning Edition broadcast an “interview” with Melody Barnes, the director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, about tonight’s State of the Union speech. (The transcript of the interview is here.) The programmed nature of Barnes’ responses became clear immediately, when she used “financial house in order” twice during her answer to the very first question. At that point, I felt like I should be playing “talking points bingo” and taking a slug of beer every time she used the phrase during the interview. And in fact she used it at least two more times. Wasn’t she embarrassed to keep repeating the same thing over and over? I’m sure she is an intelligent, witty person, but the constant resort to the “talking points” made her sound like a robot. When I got home I checked, and sure enough Press Secretary Robert Gibbs used the same “fiscal house in order” comment in his briefing yesterday. I’d be willing to bet that the other Obama Administration officials being interviewed elsewhere in the media today used “getting our financial house in order” repeatedly in their responses to questions.
What does getting our “financial house in order” even mean? It sounds like a carefully focus group-tested phrase that every listener infuses with her or his own meaning. Some may think it means raising taxes, some may think it means cutting spending, and some may think it means “investing” through more government spending. It doesn’t have any true meaning — and that is probably the point. It’s a way of sounding like you are saying something without saying anything at all.
If President Obama uses the phrase “getting our financial house in order” during his State of the Union speech I will be disappointed — and I’ll probably say “bingo” and drink a beer. I’m sick of politicians who won’t tell us what they actually intend to do, and even sicker of politicians who play ridiculous word games to try to mask their true plans.