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Frank Luntz Explains 'Words That Work'

Republican pollster Frank Luntz advises politicians on the language they should use to win elections and promote their policies. Although he works on one side of the aisle, he says that what he does is essentially nonpartisan, seeking clarity and simplicity in language. His critics disagree, and have accused him of using language that misrepresents policies to "sell" them to the public. Frank Luntz is the author of Words That Work.

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Transcript

DATE January 9, 2007 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Frank Luntz, Republican pollster and author of "Words
that Works," defends certain phrases he has advocated, tells how
focus groups are created and navigated, and need to share words
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Frank Luntz, is a pollster who advises politicians on the language
they should use to win elections and promote their policies. He helped
develop the language to sell the Republicans' "Contract with America" in 1994.
During the impeachment of President Clinton, he wrote weekly strategic
language memos for Trent Lott's advisory group. He says in the past 10 years,
he's worked behind the scenes in debate prep sessions and TV network green
rooms, in the halls of Congress and in state capitals across the country,
advising Republican senators and congressmen on issues of language.

Although he works on one side of the aisle, he says that what he does is
essentially nonpartisan, seeking clarity and simplicity in language. His
critics disagree and have accused him of using language that spins and
misrepresents policies to sway public opinion. Lately, Luntz has been working
for candidates in other countries and consulting with corporations. His new
book is called "Words that Work."

Frank Luntz, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let me just start by asking you to
describe your work.

Mr. FRANK LUNTZ: I've always been fascinated with language, with the power
of words to convince, to anger, to sooth. And my job is to figure out the
words, the language that the American people respond to, that they relate to,
that they understand. Words that are credible. Words that motivate people.
And through focus groups, polling, online surveys, one-on-one interviews,
instant response, all sorts of different research techniques, I learn the
words that work and then I apply them in a political realm, public affairs,
corporate, sometimes national, sometimes international, in trying to explain
the way Americans feel and to, in some cases, to motivate them to feel a
certain way.

GROSS: Now, let's get to what makes some of your work very controversial, and
that is the words that you recommend or that you promote in promoting certain
policies or legislation. So let's, for instance, look at the expression
"death tax" as a substitute for "estate tax" or "inheritance tax." Now, did
you coin death tax, or just recommend that Republicans use it?

Mr. LUNTZ: There's really not much I've coined. I'm basically the Johnny
Appleseed of language. I take the things that I find out that work from other
people, and then I promote it. Because of my relationships in the corporate
community and the political community, I've got a fair, large group of friends
that are interested in explaining themselves as effectively as they can to the
audience that they wish to reach, and so it's pretty easy for me to get
language into the public lexicon.

But an example like death tax, that came from polling. And what we found was,
if you call it the estate tax, about 50 percent of Americans want to get rid
of it. If you call it the inheritance tax, it goes up to about 60 percent.
If you call it the death tax, about 70 percent want to eliminate it. And the
reason why is, when you think of an estate, you think of the TV show "Dallas"
or "Dynasty." You think of Donald Trump or Ross Perot, and that's not
something that as many Americans have sympathy for as the idea that if you
die, your beneficiaries, your heirs, end up having to pay a tax. More and
more Americans believe that a family being taxed at death is something wrong,
and my company and myself was involved in that process for the last 10 years,
to explain that the death tax was wrong.

GROSS: Now, you know, your critics say that death tax misrepresents what the
tax is in the sense that death tax makes it sounds like, that everybody who
dies is taxed, when it's really a tax on people who have an estate worth more
than $2 million, which isn't, like, your average American, by any means. So
do you think that by calling it a death tax instead of an inheritance tax,
that instead of clarity you were actually misrepresenting what the tax is?
Because that's what your critics would say you were doing.

Mr. LUNTZ: All right, well, Terry, let me ask you: What is the death
tax--what is the event that causes the death tax to be applied?

GROSS: No, but what your critics would say is that...

Mr. LUNTZ: I understand, but I'm--I understand.

GROSS: I understand it only happens when you die, but it also happens...

Mr. LUNTZ: Exactly.

GROSS: ...when you're passing on $2 million.

Mr. LUNTZ: Exactly, but it...

GROSS: So in that sense, what's wrong with inheritance tax in the sense
inheritance implies that you're dying and other people are inheriting your
money?

Mr. LUNTZ: Again, I go back to--I have to go back to the same answer. It
may not be interesting to listeners, but it is accurate, and that's the key to
what I do. Everything I do in terms of language has to be accurate. It's--to
those who believe in clarity--and one of the things I would very much
encourage listeners is to read George Orwell's essay on language. The average
American assumes that being Orwellian is a negative, that being Orwellian
means that you mislead. If you read "On Language," to be Orwellian is to
speak with absolute clarity, to be succint, to explain what the event is, to
talk about what triggers something happening and to do so without any kind of
pejorative whatsoever.

GROSS: Let's look at another phrase that you recommended. You recommend that
Republicans talk not about "drilling" in the Arctic wildlife preserve but
rather "energy exploration."

Mr. LUNTZ: Absolutely. And I'll give you the example. When I say to you
drilling, most people when I ask them that question, they come up with two
words: "oil wells." And if you ask them a little bit more, they think of the
black stuff that comes out of the ground that looks like Jed Clampett in
"Beverly Hillbillies." And the difference between drilling vs. exploring,
when you ask someone about exploring, it's more precise. It's more 21st
century. It's cleaner. It's more careful. If you know what a well looks
like in Anwar, you know that our vision of it is much closer to what we
perceive exploration would be than it is drilling. There are no oil wells.
Ninety-eight percent of the exploration happens underneath the ground, and in
fact, when you're done, when they've tapped out or they couldn't find
anything, there's a small pipe that sticks out of the ground that's only a
couple feet tall, and that's the only evidence whatsoever that any kind of
exploration took place.

And in the research I did, when I showed people what it actually looks like in
Anwar, here's a picture, this an actual site--I didn't use the word
exploration--this is an actual site where they're looking for oil. Does this
define drilling or exploring? Almost 90 percent said, `That looks like
exploring to me rather than drilling.' Therefore, I'd argue that that is a
more appropriate way to communicate. I know the environmentalists don't like
the language because they understand the impact, but if the public says, after
looking at these photographs, `That doesn't look like my definition of
drilling; it looks like my definition of exploring,' then don't you think we
should be calling it what people see it to be rather than adding a political
aspect to it all?

GROSS: I guess--what about, should we be calling it what it actually is, as
opposed to what somebody thinks it might be, and the difference between
exploration and actually getting out the oil, they're two different things,
aren't they?

Mr. LUNTZ: I would argue that, even just in this conversation now, if I were
to ask you where you stood--and I won't--on Anwar, I can tell you, by your
definition--and that's also part of what I do is to understand what motivates
people, where they come from--you have a certain preconceived notion of what
should happen up there, and therefore your language is applied to that notion.

GROSS: Well, I'm playing devil's advocate with you because I know the work
that you do is controversial, and I'm trying to represent some of the reasons
why it is controversial so we can understand the controversy behind it.

Mr. LUNTZ: And I understand that, but again, I go back to, if 90 percent of
Americans--88 percent, to be precise--look at a photograph and say `That's
exploration, that's not drilling,' who am I to say it's drilling? Is that
fair?

GROSS: You used the word "environmentalists" before. You've recommended that
Republicans not use the word environmentalists, but rather conservationists.
What's the difference in the way those two words?

Mr. LUNTZ: It's actually kind of sad because the environmental community has
developed, over the years, an image of being extreme in how they promote their
efforts. I myself care considerably about the quality of air and the quality
of water, and I believe in open space. I worked very hard for an initiative
to set aside open space in urban and suburban areas that I know some people on
the Republican side would not appreciate. And I've taken a role for the
nature conservancy, as an example, in some of the efforts that they do. But
the environmental groups, the ones that are best known, because of their
language and the way they carry out their politics, have developed a very
extreme image to them that has an impact of undermining exactly what they're
trying to do. A conservationist is seen as someone in the mainstream; an
environmentalist, more often, is seen as someone who is more extreme.

GROSS: But could you argue that the reason why environmentalists are seen as
extreme is because some conservatives have described them as extreme for so
long that they started to be seen that way? In other words, you said that
environmentalists developed an image of being extreme. You could argue that
it's not that environmentalists, like the Sierra Club, are extreme, but rather
they were smeared as being extreme.

Mr. LUNTZ: I got to ask you again: Is tying yourself to a tree mainstream
or extreme?

GROSS: But that's not in the mainstream of the environmental movement.

Mr. LUNTZ: But those things happen, and people see that because it's visual
and they're trying to make a statement. OK, let's do something a little more
mainstream.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. LUNTZ: If you are opposed to any kind of building--I just bought a place
in California. I happen to like the weather out there. The environmental
community basically stands up and opposes every opportunity, every program, to
try to build affordable housing. To them, any kind of additional
construction, they will oppose. The American people don't support that.
They're looking for a balanced approach, where we can maintain open spaces and
still provide for a population that's growing. And what's the impact of that?
Everyone knows that you can barely afford to live anywhere in San Francisco or
Los Angeles because there isn't affordable housing, and everyone who would
develop, everyone who would create affordable housing, they know that it's
going to take 10 years of battles with environmental groups before they can
build anything, so it's almost not worth it. And the public looks at the
environmental community and feels like it doesn't make any effort to reach
that mainstream approach.

GROSS: But again, do you think that the public reached--that the public that
did reach that conclusion perhaps reached it because that's what they were
told by Republicans who wanted to portray environmentalists as extreme?

Mr. LUNTZ: What about Democrats who want to portray all businesspeople as
evil?

GROSS: My guest is pollster Frank Luntz. His new book is called "Words that
Work."

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Frank Luntz, and he's a
pollster who advises mostly on the use of language, both in the corporate
world and in the political world. In the political world, he's advised
Republicans, and he's also doing a lot of international political consulting
now.

Let's get to another phrase that you've consulted on, and you've recommended
instead of using the word "global warming," you've recommended "climate
change." What's the difference in how they poll, and why did you recommend
climate change?

Mr. LUNTZ: People react to global warming in a slightly different way than
climate change. Climate change is less--it creates less hysteria. Global
warming is more intense, it's more emotional, it's, quite frankly, more
impactful. Climate change is more thoughtful, more reasonable. Global
warming causes people to divide; climate change says, `Let's deal with the
issue and let's see if we can come to an agreement.'

GROSS: There's a group called the Environmental Working Group that started
giving out an award in your honor for people who thought they were using,
like, euphemisms to obscure the true meaning of a policy. What was your
reaction to--I think it's called the Luntzie Award?

Mr. LUNTZ: It's another example--and they were trying to get publicity off
of my name, and they were trying in a, in what I would say, an extreme way to
try to distinguish where they stand, and it's another example of why I feel
the environmental community needs a new group of strategists, a new group of
advisers, who attempt to take what they are trying to achieve, which is not
just important, it's essential. Quality of life--air and water and space and
the beauty of what our country offers and has offered for 200 years--these
things are important, and it is, I think, a tragedy that so often they're
trivialized by individuals that use the same skills that I use, but they use
it to create language that's very divisive, that's polarizing, that's extreme,
and then they lose the mainstream of American public opinion.

I'm so often asked, `Why is the environment not a bigger issue in the public
mind-set in election after election? Why is it that we've had environmental
issues now in this country for 20 years, and yet in no election in that time
has the environment even come up in the top five?' My answer is just--and I
say to people--`Go look at who's leading the movement.' Because they're just
not in the mainstream of public opinion. The American people believe in a lot
of what these organizations advocate, but they don't believe in the way it's
being advocated.

GROSS: Well, let me ask you a question about work that you've done with a
trade group, because you do a lot of work outside politics, and I don't think
you suggested the word "gaming" instead of "gambling," but you promoted the
use of the word gaming instead of gambling for the casinos. What's the
difference between gaming and gambling?

Mr. LUNTZ: If you talk about gaming, you think about the restaurants in
Vegas, you think about the nightlife in Vegas and all the entertainment, you
think about the spas and salons. Gambling is about dice, and it's about slot
machines, and it's about cards. Gaming is about the whole aspect of an
Atlanta City experience, a Las Vegas experience. It's all those things mixed
in.

GROSS: But just in terms of what the language conveys--I mean, you're talking
about the shopping and the hotels and the restaurants, those aren't gaming or
gambling. I mean, people who go to game or gamble do that, but does gaming,
you know, describe the hotels any more accurately than gambling does?

Mr. LUNTZ: It's all in the perception. By the way, it's about 28, 29
percent of Americans...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. LUNTZ: ...will at some point in the next year do either a lottery or go
to a casino, will do some sort of gaming. For them, there is a difference.
And my job is to listen to those who engage in these kinds of activities and
be best able to respond to them, knowing that there are those who are critical
who don't. That's all.

GROSS: Well, let me just ask you. You talk about the importance of clarity
and that your job is about clarity. The difference between a game and
gambling, technically, is that when you're gambling, if you're gambling on a
game, you're placing a bet, there's money on the table. There's all kinds of
games that don't involve gambling. But the ones that do involve gambling are
called gambling, and the casinos are all about putting money on the table,
that's why they're called gambling. So is calling it gaming clarifying or is
it just a kind of more neutral or even euphemistic phrase because, you know,
for a lot of people, gambling seems illicit, it seems, you know, like, there's
compulsive gambling. It has like a negative connotation to a lot of people.

Mr. LUNTZ: And that's the amazing thing, is that gambling actually doesn't
have a negative connotation to most people anymore. It did, you're correct,
30 or 40 years ago, but it just doesn't anymore. The average American sees
nothing wrong with Las Vegas and, in fact, even those who don't like to gamble
still enjoy going out there for a weekend. And here's what's interesting.
For the 20-year-olds, and you ask the issue of gaming, what do they think of?
They don't think of Las Vegas. They don't think of casinos. They think of
those video games that the kids're now playing.

So the definition has even evolved over the last 10 years beyond a slot
machine, and it's now about a guy walking through a city or--there's got to be
a better way to explain it. Now, gaming, to a young person, is the video game
that they play on their home computer, on their laptop or even on their cell
phone. So gaming has taken on a completely different meaning to the next
generation.

GROSS: So you're suggesting that when promoting casinos, the word gambling
and not gaming should be used because gaming means, like, computer games and
things like that?

Mr. LUNTZ: No. Gaming--if, again, I don't know when the last time you were
in Las Vegas, but you'll spend less time at a table than you will in the spa,
than you will at a great restaurant having an amazing meal cooked by a
world-renowned chef, than you will see "The Beatles in Love" or Tom Jones or
Justin Timberlake or whoever happens to be performing. And Debbie Reynolds is
still there, and Wayne Newton is still there, so you still get a sense of the
old Vegas. But it's--people don't just go there anymore to sit at the tables,
and gambling is such a small component of what makes Las Vegas tick.

GROSS: Frank Luntz is a pollster who advises politicians and corporations on
issues of language. His new book is called "Words that Work." He'll be back
in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR.

I'm Terry Gross back with pollster Frank Luntz. He's consulted with many
Republican candidates and congressmen on how to use language to win elections
and promote policies. He's also consulted with many Fortune 100 companies on
issues of language. Luntz tests key words and phrases through polls and focus
groups. He's written a new book called "Words that Work."

Now, I want to ask you about a word that President Bush is using, and I don't
think you've advised him on this, but I'm really curious about your take of
the use of the word "surge," as in he's advocating a surge of troops in Iraq.

Mr. LUNTZ: I don't think it's an effective word because the word surge
suggests numbers, and more troops in Iraq will clearly be opposed by a
majority of the American people. He would've been much better off talking
about a re-examination of where we stand in Iraq; a reassessment of the
specific components of troops, what they do, how they do it and how many are
needed; and then a reassessment and a realignment that puts the number of
troops where they need to be in the process that they need to be waging this
effort. I think he would've been more effective with those "re" words, those
R-E-dash words--reassessment, refocus--because that suggests flexibility, it
suggests listening to the commanders on the ground, and it suggests a focus
and doing what is required in the field rather than just a simple focus on
troop movement.

And I'm going to give you another example because it relates to this. This
administration talked about "electronic intercepts" when it first promoted the
Patriot Act, and then over time they started to talk about "wiretaps" and,
still later on, "eavesdropping." Now, all three mean the same thing, but they
have a very different impact. Eavesdropping's something that you do when you
listen to your neighbors arguing in the house across the road. Wiretapping is
something that happened in Watergate, or it's something that the FBI does
against the mob. Electronic intercepts is scientific, it's state-of-the-art,
and it's applied in more of a national security field.

I don't think this administration focuses as much--and I know that I'm always
being suggested that I'm advising the Bush administration. I have not seen
the president in I guess three years now, and I've not spoken to anyone high
up in the administration in a significant time. And I was never their
pollster. I was never their language guy. But it's easy--it's a nice
shortcut in Op-Eds and on the Web and in blogs to suggest that my language
becomes the administration's language. I actually believe that this
administration is not effective when it comes to communicating, and one of the
reasons why they were so ineffective in 2006 and one of the reasons why
Republicans lost so badly--and one should not underestimate just how badly
they lost--is that the American people not only became tired of the policies,
but they also became tired of the communication. And this word "surge" is not
going to help this administration over the coming weeks and months.

GROSS: As somebody who spends a lot of time thinking about language and how
it's used to promote ideas and policies and positions, I want to ask you a
question about talking points. And the question will actually start with a
clip from Jon Stewart's show, and he was talking at this point--this was like
during the 2004 presidential campaign--and he was talking about how
conventional wisdom is arrived at. So here's what Stewart had to say about
conventional wisdom.

(Soundbite from "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart")

Mr. JON STEWART: Conventional wisdom is the agreed-upon understanding of an
event or person. John Kerry's a flip-flopper. George Bush has sincere,
heartland values and he's stupid. What matters is not that the designation be
true, just that it be agreed upon by the media so that no further thought has
to be put into it. So how is conventional wisdom arrived at? For instance,
let's take the example of the addition of John Edwards to the Democratic
ticket. I don't know how to feel about that. I don't know what it means.
Here's how I will:

Unidentified Woman #1: This is 28 pages from the Republican National
Committee. It says, "Who is Edwards?" Starts off by saying a disingenuous,
unaccomplished liberal. We also saw, from the Bush-Cheney camp, had released
talking points to their supporters.

Mr. STEWART: Talking points. That's how we learn things. But how will I
absorb a talking point like `Edwards and Kerry are out of the mainstream'
unless I get it jackhammered into my skull? That's where television lends a
hand.

Unidentified Man #1: He stands way out of the mainstream.

Unidentified Man #2: Way out of the mainstream.

Unidentified Woman #2: But stands so far out of the mainstream that he is out
of the mainstream.

Unidentified Man #3: Or out of the mainstream.

Unidentified Man #4: He's well out of the mainstream.

Mr. STEWART: I am getting the feeling--I think they're out of the
mainstream. Talking points: They're true because they're said a lot.

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: Now, since you work with language, I'm wondering if you've worked a
lot with talking points and with getting people to be on the same page so that
they're saying the same thing through the day, you know, repeating it until
everybody kind of hears it so much that it becomes, as Stewart put it,
conventional wisdom.

Mr. LUNTZ: That's primarily what a flack's responsibility, and a flack is a
euphemism for press secretary or communications director. And I tend to work
on the outside. My job tends to be figuring out the words that work and then
others take that language and apply it to the political situation or the
corporate situation.

What Stewart was saying has very much a core of truth to it, which is that if
something is repeated enough, the people will come to believe it. And the
more you repeat it, the more believable it becomes. I remember watching, in
1994, Newt Gingrich, who, regardless of you like him or dislike him, you have
to acknowledge that he is one of the brightest political people that has come
upon the--entered into politics over the last 20 years. And here is a guy who
actually engaged the media and the American people in a discussion over Social
Security, Medicare, budgets, taxes, education, perhaps most importantly,
welfare and how to bring people back into a productive life in American
society, and yet Gingrich was demonized from the very first moment that he
became speaker, the so-called talking points, the efforts against him. Even
when he was put on covers of magazines, the pictures were as unflattering as
possible, and when people spoke about him, they used the most extreme language
as possible. And you know what? It did have an impact. It had a very major
impact against him.

GROSS: My guest is pollster Frank Luntz. His new book is called "Words that
Work."

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guest is pollster Frank Luntz. He's consulted to many Republican
candidates, senators and congressmen on how to use language to win elections
and promote policies. His new book is called "Words that Work."

Now, part of what you do is structure focus groups so that you can really test
words and ideas, and see whether they catch on, whether they connect to
people. Can you talk a little bit about what makes a good focus group, like,
how it needs to be divided, what range of people and opinion you need on it
for it to be effective?

Mr. LUNTZ: My sessions are the loudest, most boisterous, most intense
sessions of anyone who does what I do. Because my job in all of this, also,
is to get what people actually feel and not just what they want to say. It's
very hard to get people to acknowledge that they have racial bias or that they
have some sort of ethnic bias or that they're not open-minded when it comes to
politics, or that they may choose a product because they really like the
advertising. These are things that people don't want to admit, even though it
exists in day-to-day life, and we know it exists. We know that people don't
look at products evenly, we know that they don't look at other people evenly,
that there are different expectations and responses based on what you wear,
what gender you are, what religion you are, what race you are. And so I have
to break all of that down if I'm to get how they really feel, and very often I
do that with humor, I do that with intensity, and my groups--and I do a lot of
sessions in the New York area, which is the toughest--I feel sorry for anyone
who's got to moderate a group in New York, because people come...

GROSS: Oh, because people are so cynical here?

Mr. LUNTZ: They're cynical and they're angry, and they don't mind telling
you, and they really don't listen to each other.

GROSS: Uh-huh.

Mr. LUNTZ: And it's just incredibly hard, and I've got to get my juices
going before I do a New York group because I know that it's going to be the
toughest three hours of the day.

GROSS: I'll tell you, I was once involved in a focus group. We were testing
something. And so I was on the other side of the one-way mirror of the
two-way mirror so that, you know, we could see the focus group but they
couldn't see us. And there was one guy who got up in the middle of the focus
group and came toward the two-way mirror with his kind of fist raised and
started saying, `I know you're behind there! I know you're there!' And it was
bizarre because, of course, they knew we were there, but, of course, we were
supposed to--everyone was supposed to act like they didn't know we were there.
Does that ever happen to you, where people suspect that you and the other guys
are on the other side of the two-way mirror, but they're supposed to act like
you're not--well, actually, you're organizing the focus groups; you're with
the group. But there's probably other people on the other side of the two-way
mirror?

Mr. LUNTZ: There's almost always people watching, and they know it. But
within 10 minutes--I do a lot of stuff on air, and I've done these focus group
sessions on television for almost every TV network, not just in America, but
I've done it for a number of--I've done it in Britain, Ireland, Israel, in
public, for their national TV networks. And the process is to get people to
forget that there are cameras or, in a traditional focus group, to forget that
there's a mirror. And if you're good at engaging them, they stop looking at
the mirror and they only look at you or each other.

Now, I had a situation similar to yours, but it was very tough. It was in
Pittsburgh. It was with working-class Americans. And they were very angry at
the company that they worked for. And the intensity of that anger got so bad,
and it was in a small room, and the room was packed with participants. I was
backed up against the window. And a couple of these guys stood up and were
threatening, and I didn't know--there's no place for me to go, I couldn't get
around on the sides, and for one brief moment, I was afraid that the
participants might put me through the window. It's the only time in doing a
session that I've ever actually been afraid for my physical well-being.

GROSS: So did all this anger register on the people who were on the other
side of the two-way mirror? Was this like a corporate testing thing or?

Mr. LUNTZ: It was a business testing thing, and the people behind the mirror
got it. Oh, boy, did they get it!

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. LUNTZ: And I almost always bring my clients because I want them to hear
how their customers, how their consumers, how people that they wish to relate
to--I want them to hear if there is anger. I want them to hear if there is
love. I want them to hear all of these emotions in the way that people
communicate it because I don't want to be the translator of it. I merely want
to be the facilitator that helps corporations, trade associations, foundations
better relate to the people that they wish to reach out to.

GROSS: Now, you use something called the instant response dial or the people
meter. What is the dial and how do you use it?

Mr. LUNTZ: I want the listener to imagine that something about the size of a
remote control. It's a box with a dial, and it goes from zero to 100. You
turn the dial left to right, based on whether you agree and believe in what
you're hearing or whether you disagree or disbelieve. You're looking at a
videotape of someone speaking, or sometimes it's the person there live, and
the more that you agree with what's being said, or the more you want to buy
it, the higher you turn your dial. The more you disagree, disbelieve, or
don't want to buy it, the lower you turn your dial. And you react to every
word, every phrase, every aspect of that presentation, and we collect this.
We'll put 30 people in the room, and we'll collect that information on the
computer, and it generates lines that go up and down based on the words, the
phrases, the presentation, and it tells us point by point, word by word,
phrase by phrase, what works and what doesn't, what turns people on and off.
That's, by the way, how I learned immediately that the phrase "bring it on"
that the president used in one of his press conferences was such a disaster.
We were playing it...

GROSS: What did people tell you when they heard it?

Mr. LUNTZ: The lines caved. It even caved among Republicans who had voted
for Bush. We tested the press conference. He's delivering a speech; it had
something to do with AIDS. And then he reaches that line, and the lines drop
sharply. There're several examples of this. Bill Clinton trying to explain
what the meaning of the word "is" is. Gary Condit trying to explain for the
fourth time that he's been married for 29 years, that he isn't perfect, and
that his marriage has had some ups and downs. Every time he said it, the
lines went lower and lower and lower. That there are certain phrases and
words that people use in their communication that just cause the listener to
tune out and turn off, and "bring it on" was an example. And I would not've
known it if I didn't have that dial technology.

GROSS: Mm-hmm. You know, earlier in your career, you consulted to the
Republicans who were putting together the "Contract with America," and this
was 1994, and this was the contract that--this was the document that helped
Republicans gain control of the House in '94. What was your role in that?

Mr. LUNTZ: I was the--I define it as the pollster of record. My job was to
go out, figure out what was the best way to explain it, see that the items had
public support, and I'll tell you a couple of inside stories.

First, when we tested the idea of giving parents a $500 tax credit for a
child, the response from the public was, `That's not enough. I'm raising a
child. I need more money than 500.' So we changed the language to talk about
$1,000 for a family of four, for two kids, which is a typical family of four.
We didn't use the $500 number in the contract because it wasn't significant
enough. It didn't seem like it would make a difference in people's lives.

Another example: The two items...

GROSS: But wait. So you didn't change the amount of money, you just changed
the language?

Mr. LUNTZ: Exactly. We changed it to a family of four would get $1,000.

I'll give you--if I tell you that Social Security begins to lose money in 2017
and I tell you that Social Security begins to lose money in 11 years, which to
you sounds like it's sooner, it's more inevitable?

GROSS: To me 11 years sounds sooner.

Mr. LUNTZ: Exactly. And that's how most Americans look at it. And so it's
not misleading, but it is putting it in a context that gets Americans to pay
more attention to the fact that only 11 years from now, Social Security starts
to lose money, whereas the Bush administration kept talking about 2017.
That's an example of the work that we do. If you don't agree with that
position on Social Security, I have no doubt that you will resent that way of
communicating, but in the end, there's nothing dishonest. There is nothing
inaccurate. And, in fact, I'd say to you that corporations and trade
associations and politicians have a responsibility to communicate in a way
that makes it most likely that the public will support where they stand. If
it's 11 years from now, and that's a better way to communicate it than 2017,
then talk about 11 years from now.

GROSS: My guest is pollster Frank Luntz. His new book is called "Words that
Work."

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guest is pollster Frank Luntz. He's consulted to many Republican
candidates, senators and congressmen on how to use language to win elections
and promote policies. His new book is called "Words that Work." Let's pick up
where we left off.

You also consulted with the Republicans during the impeachment of President
Clinton and...

Mr. LUNTZ: I hated that. I hated that whole process. I had to get up very
early in the morning, I would drive down to Capitol Hill. I genuinely wanted
the president to resign. I had issues about the actual voting for
impeachment. I thought, because the president had lied under oath--it had
nothing to do with his behavior, in my mind, and everything to do with what he
did with the Justice Department and how the president has to set an example
for the rest of the country. If he lies under oath, then who's to say that
anyone else shouldn't lie under oath? And it was very tense, it was very
political, and it was one of the most horrific experiences to watch that whole
process unfold.

GROSS: You wrote a strategy memo for the Republicans during the impeachment
process, and let me just read part of this, because I'd like you to explain
this because I'm not sure how to interpret this. You write that Justice
Rehnquist, who was the chief justice then, "should serve as the cover for all
otherwise partisan decisions. If you want the Democrats to appear defensive,
negative and partisan, you need to pit them against the chief justice of the
Supreme Court, the symbol of impartial justice in America. This requires that
Senate Republicans remove themselves completely from the decision-making
process prior to the beginning of the trial. Rehnquist, not you, should rule
on the Gorton-Lieberman proposal. Let Rehnquist make all the tough,
controversial decisions."

Is that making the assumption that Rehnquist would always--that the court
would always rule in the Republicans' favor?

Mr. LUNTZ: Oh, no way. But it what was saying was that Republicans should
stop being--and there's a phrase for this--jurors, judge and jury, I think is
the euphemism that people use. At that time, the American people had begun to
swing towards Clinton's side because they felt the Republicans were doing this
not for principle, but for politics. And what that paragraph you just read
said is, `Get out of the politics. If there is a legal decision to be made,
don't talk about it because you're just politicizing it. Let the chief
justice make his decision. Whether he rules for the Republicans or rules for
the Democrats, he will make that decision, and it is not for you as
Republicans to play politics.' Now...

GROSS: Then why did you use the word "cover," as someone so sensitive to
language? You say that Rehnquist should serve as the "cover for all otherwise
partisan decisions."

Mr. LUNTZ: When he makes the decision, it will be regarded as impartial, it
will be regarded as nonpolitical. Let him make that decision so that you
don't have to. Now, by the way, one of the things that was interesting was
that it was OK for the Democrats to throw accusations and barbs at the
Republicans, and I can remember, for a whole year, people like James Carville
just ripping into the GOP for accusing them of making this up only to have to
backtrack--and he never actually apologized--only to have to backtrack after
Bill Clinton admitted that the stuff that he denied doing he actually did.

And the problem that I have in studying this and being involved over the last,
I guess it's 15 years now, is that--and I hate to say this because I don't
like the consequences of it, but there is a double standard: that
environmentalists can say what they want--I'll go back to that point--that
environmentalists can say what they want about the business community, the
people who employ tens of millions of Americans, and that's OK, but the
business community can't say something about the environmentalists. That's
out of bounds, or it's partisan, or it's negative. That it's OK to trash
somebody like Newt Gingrich, but it's not OK to challenge Tom Daschle or, now,
Nancy Pelosi. I really do believe, in listening as I do, that there's a
double standard in communication.

And one of the challenges that we need to face over the next--and this is a
great way to head towards a close here--one of the challenges that we need to
get conservatives not just to watch Fox News but to read The New York Times
and The Washington Post to collect information from people that they don't
naturally agree with. And we need people on the left on occasion to watch Fox
News. We need not just to verify and to confirm what we already believe, we
need to spend a lot more time listening to those who we don't necessarily
agree with. That's how we're going to learn. And the purpose of--final
reason why I went and wrote this book is that I wanted to open up the word
laboratory so that people could take a look inside and be able to decide for
themselves: Is this honest? Is this fair? Is this legitimate? And the book
was my way of trying to do that.

GROSS: You mentioned Nancy Pelosi. You made news recently for a language
that you used, and this was in describing Nancy Pelosi. You said, "You get
one shot at a face-lift. If it doesn't work the first time, let it go."

Mr. LUNTZ: That was a joke. And it was OK to make fun of the president,
it's OK to make fun of John McCain or Rudy Giuliani, but if you're a Democrat
and you make fun--if you crack a joke, that's not acceptable. See, that's
what I don't understand. And that's something that I'm hoping that over the
coming years, we can address as a country, that if we are going to take things
so personally, then let's make an agreement that we treat everyone the same
rather than saying that these people are OK to crack a joke about, but these
other people are off-limits. We really do have a double standard in this
country, and it really does need to be addressed.

GROSS: So you're not sorry that you said it, you have no regrets?

Mr. LUNTZ: Oh, I have regrets because I've seen it--I google it. It comes
up in every single Web site on the left brings it up. It's almost every other
day I see that quote. It was a joke. It was what--I will surprise listeners,
and even though I know the actual political, because I polled NPR listeners, I
have a lot of friends on the Democratic side, and in particular, I know a
number of the Democratic presidential candidates and a number of the
Democratic senators and congressmen. And they all laughed; they all thought
it was funny. The people who don't find it funny, and these are the people I
feel sorry for, are those who write in the blogs. There is an anger on the
Web that is so apparent, that is so personal and so vicious, and I don't see
anything happening to address that level of anger.

But there's no reason to have this separation so that the only people the
Democrats get their news from are those who they think have their bias, and
the only people the Republicans get their news from are people who have that
bias. We need to share more ideas, we need to have more discussion, we need
to have more words that work for everybody, not just those on the left or the
right.

GROSS: Frank Luntz, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. LUNTZ: It's my pleasure.

GROSS: Pollster Frank Luntz is the author of the new book, "Words that Work."

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross. We'll close with happy birthday wishes for guitarist
Bucky Pizzarelli, who's 81 today. Here he is playing with his son, guitarist
John Pizzarelli.

(Soundbite of Bucky and John Pizzarelli performing)
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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