This is the season when talking points have descended on the nation like a plague of stink bugs. The principal reason is the controversy surrounding the attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, much of which has centered on the Obama administration’s talking points — who said what, when and why.
My quandary here is that it is impossible to denounce talking points without mentioning them. And the prominent emergence of talking points in the national conversation cries out to be denounced.
Of course, code words might serve my purpose — say, if I write “political armadillos” instead of the dreaded term “talking points” — but that would lead to its own confusion. Some readers would then denounce me for hurting the feelings of armadillos, which possibly constitutes a capital offense in Texas.
So forgive me for calling a gardening implement a spade and a talking point a pox upon the land. Why do I hate the idea of talking points? Because they are the beastly pets of spin doctors and kindred political lowlifes and they have made a jungle of simple communication.
Amazingly, a simple time existed not long ago when people just asked other people for the facts. Can you imagine it? Just the facts, ma’am. What’s the story, morning glory?
But then some chronically political person decided that the plain story would never do. It would be better to arrange the salient facts into a persuasive sequence in order to win arguments. The talking point, its hour come round at last, slouched toward Washington to be born.
Talking points are not neutral. They serve an argumentative purpose. If repeated enough, people’s brains throw a tiny rope out of their ears and slide down to a less tedious environment. At that point, political victory can be claimed.
This is a problem, or should I say an issue, which is what problems are called now. Talking points are the similar fruit of degenerative language. Just as problems have become issues, freighted with social science nuance, so have facts become talking points, with their overtones of political hoodwinkery.
This stuff sneaks up on us. As recently as 20 years ago, writers felt compelled to put quotation marks around “talking points.” How cute was that? Talking points then were like puppies of an unknown breed, so novel they needed quotation marks to show the wording was playful and new.
Ah, it was a naive time. Well, not too naive — Bill Clinton was in the White House. But talking points were not so numerous.
I know this because curiosity drove me to do a search of my newspaper’s electronic files. I apologize to all those of you who expect better of me than actual research, but the results are interesting. I found that the precise term “talking points” has occurred 530 times in the Post-Gazette’s stories since 1992 — wait, this makes 531. For the 10 years between March 1992 and April 2002, only 109 such stories were found.
In short, the use of talking points is reaching epidemic proportions — and the quotation marks have long ago fled.
In recent years, various scolds have leveled against me the ultimate insult: They accuse me in my unrepentant liberal state of borrowing talking points from the Democratic National Committee.
Let me state that I do not recycle other people’s talking point drivel. All the drivel you read here is original drivel. It comes with an Authentic Drivel Guarantee, which you can get by sending me $10 (proceeds go to the Home for Retired Columnists, R. Henry proprietor).
To the extent that what I write echoes anything else, that can be put down to great minds thinking alike (also mediocre minds). Read my lips: I raise no new talking points, I consciously repeat no old ones. I wish the Obama administration did likewise.
Surely this is a bipartisan position to be welcomed by all except those in the political armadillo community, armored as they are against speaking the simple truth.
Reg Henry is a columnist for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.