I'm following with some interest the argument about which adjective we're going to hang on the president's plans for Social Security. (I have yet to hear from the White House communications shop on my suggestion -- "The Let Granny Eat Grass Act Of 2005" -- and, I confess, I am not optimistic.) It appears that we journalists are failing in our important role as constitutionally sanctioned conveyor belts if we refer to the administration's schemes as "private accounts," now that all the people who believe in such accounts, like the president, have decided that they will use the word "personal" instead. Which also means that the words I've come to use to describe the notion -- "rat holes," say, or "Enron-bait" -- also are right out.
I heard this argument just the other day from Frank Luntz, who is famous for getting groups to say what he wants them to say by locking them in a room in Secaucus with nothing but a cheese platter and his own sunny presence. Frankly, I don't know why he hasn't been hauled away to The Hague for doing this, but that is not for small minds to ponder. Anyway, on the radio the other day, Luntz pointed out that anyone who still uses the word "private" in reference to the president's Social Security initiative is betraying a bias against the plan solely because the president is calling the proposed accounts "personal accounts" now and, therefore, we all should do so, too.
The two words are hardly interchangeable. To get personal is almost always to violate privacy. Everything that is private is personal, but not everything personal is private, as Madonna once explained to Aristotle. For example, privates are always personal, but personals are not always private. Some of them come with Post Office boxes and advertise in America's finest alternative newspapers. And, anyway, this is a startling development on a lot of levels. I believe it bestows on the president a power undreamed of by our Founding Fathers -- or, for that matter, by the Marx Brothers.
(It is legend now that the president regularly calls Karl Rove "Turd Blossom." I think that would have been a more appropriate test of the new power that Luntz says is inherent in the presidency than this whole personal-private wrangle. Editors at The New York Times, please take note.)
I mean, if the president decides to refer to his vice president as "Trigger," or "Cheetah," or "Charlize Theron," does that mean everyone has to do it? I'm no mass-communications expert, but I'm reasonably sure that a caption beneath a picture of Dick Cheney in high snarl that reads "Vice President Charlize Theron meets with reporters" isn't going to do a lot for the tattered credibility of my profession. Frankly, I don't think folks are going to believe us. OK, maybe the Podhoretz boys will, but you get the point.
Back when I was a full-time sportswriter, I used to have to spend a month every year driving around that part of Florida we like to call Lower Mississippi in order to visit the various baseball training camps. I was always struck by a huge sign along the road from Winter Haven to Orlando that advertised "Goat Milk Fudge!" I mean, they seemed so proud. At first, I thought it was some strange, local exclamation -- to wit, "Goat Milk Fudge, Mother, don't that gator look like Uncle Dud?" It turned out that it was exactly what was advertised: fudge made with goat's milk. It wasn't bad, either.
Now, just suppose that, next week, Luntz manages to shanghai the usual suspects into his customary dungeon in the Anastasia Room of the Nolo Contendere Hilton. Desperate to be released, and with the tiny cubes of cheddar dwindling to a tiny handful, the poor inmates decide to tell Luntz anything in the hope that it will speed their release. So 70 percent of them say that they would be more in favor of the president's plan if, instead of being called private accounts, those elements were called Goat Milk Fudge. Luntz duly types this up and runs it back to the White House, where the president's communications gurus blast-fax the new talking points to thousands of tiny Hannities across this great land.
Very soon, it is made clear to the major media that they will be demonstrating actual bias if they do not refer to the most important element of the president's Social Security proposal as Goat Milk Fudge. No personal accounts. No private accounts. Just Goat Milk Fudge.
As in: "The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office yesterday expressed doubt about the Goat Milk Fudge that is an essential part of President Bush's ambitious attempt to overhaul Social Security."
Or, "Republican congressional leaders yesterday accused House Democrats of unwarranted partisanship in regards to the Goat Milk Fudge section of President Bush's Social Security plan. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay angrily accused the Democrats of 'playing politics with the freedom of young Americans to put their own money in Goat Milk Fudge and watch it grow.'"
Or, "Democratic Senator Joseph Lieberman yesterday announced himself willing to work with the White House on what he called 'responsible proposals, including Goat Milk Fudge,' but declined to endorse Goat Milk Fudge that derived from existing benefits."
The fact that it's easy to do doesn't mean we should do it. We are, after all, professional political journalists, and when we say private, by God, we mean private.
Ken Starr taught us that one.
Charles P. Pierce is a staff writer for The Boston Globe Magazine and a contributing writer for Esquire. He also appears regularly on National Public Radio.
By Charles P. Pierce
Reprinted with permission from The American Prospect, 5 Broad Street, Boston, MA 02109. All rights reserved