Skip to main content

Parsing Politics: Geoff Nunberg on Debate-Speak

Fresh Air's resident linguist has had some thoughts lately on the language of the recent string of debates among the various presidential hopefuls. On today's show, he talks to Terry Gross about the signifiers he sees encoded in political language. Geoff Nunberg's most recent book is Talking Right: How Conservatives Turned Liberalism into a Tax-Raising, Latte-Drinking, Sushi-Eating, Volvo-Driving, New York Times-Reading, Body-Piercing, Hollywood-Loving, Left-Wing Freak Show. His primary reaction to the debates? "Stupefaction." The events themselves don't offer up much information, Nunberg says, though they do offer some clues about what things, and what terms, politicos think will be important as the 2008 elections loom.


Other segments from the episode on August 22, 2007

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, August 22, 2007: Interview with Connie Schultz; Interview with Geoffrey Nunberg.


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: Journalist Connie Schultz, also the wife of Senator
Sherrod Brown, on her new memoir, "...and His Lovely Wife," on
being both a feminist and a candidate's wife

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

What's it like to be a candidate's wife and a feminist? That's what my guest,
Connie Schultz, writes about her new memoir "...and His Lovely Wife." The
title, of course, refers to the way she was often introduced at public events,
when she was seen as an extension of him. Schultz was a Pulitzer
Prize-winning columnist with the Cleveland Plain Dealer when her husband of
two years, Democratic Congressman Sherrod Brown, decided to run for the Senate
seat in Ohio. It was one of the closely watched Senate races in 2006. Brown
and Schultz had been married two years at the time. Schultz took a leave of
absence from her paper during the campaign. Brown is now in the Senate;
Schultz is back at her paper. They spend as much time together as they can,
under the circumstances, and have residences in Ohio and Washington.

Connie Schultz, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Ms. CONNIE SCHULTZ: Thank you. Great to be here.

GROSS: You write in your book `I've spent all of my adult life as a feminist
and a journalist, most recently as a newspaper columnist, sounding off,
speaking my mind, giving my opinions.' Yet when your husband was running for
Senate, you had to say things like, `Well, Sherrod feels,' `Well, Sherrod
thinks,' because it was all like about his opinion.

Ms. SCHULTZ: Right.

GROSS: What did you tell yourself when you had to adjust to that?

Ms. SCHULTZ: When I first started doing that, I told myself, `Connie, you
sound like every 16-year-old girlfriend you've ever met.' I mean--and it was
such a challenge at times, and I don't mean that I wasn't proud of my husband.
I was. I agree with Sherrod on most issues. You know, we've only been
married for three and a half years. You don't marry someone in middle age
unless you have an awful lot in common--or you better not, anyway. But I just
couldn't quite believe what I was morphing into and, at first I thought I'd
lost all my edges. Do you know what I mean? I would look out there and who
is this blurry person now going `blah blah blah Sherrod Brown blah blah.' But
over time, I found my bearings and I started to feel that I was coming back
into view, just for myself, at least.

GROSS: And what changed in how you were speaking or behaving that made you
feel more like yourself?

Ms. SCHULTZ: Well, when I first started, I was really trying to just, you
know--and I didn't even, I think, put enough thought into it. I was just
parroting Sherrod. People hand you me these policy statements or you know,
you talk about what--and after a while I realized--it didn't take long
actually--I was boring myself. So I can only imagine how the audience was
feeling. And the whole reason for the book title is, I felt like I even lost
my name. I was just being introduced as Sherrod's wife a lot, and there was
some issue of whether or not--well, not for me, I was never going to change my
name--but particularly some men had a problem with my not having the same name
as Sherrod.

And then one night I was introduced at a chicken dinner as `Sherrod Brown's
wife, a woman who refuses to change her name, so here she is.' So he didn't
even say my name. And at the same time, I had just lost my father to a heart
attack. My dad died about two weeks earlier, and it really all came to a head
for me. And I thought, you know, saying that I haven't changed my name
because I only married Sherrod a year and a half ago doesn't begin to explain
why I have this name and why I'm proud of it. And so I got up--and it was a
working-class crowd, and so I talked about my working-class parents, my mom
and my dad and what they'd given up in their lives. They both died in their
60s. You know, I talked about how they wore their bodies out so their kids
would never have to and how, you know, they thought they were two nobodies,
Jane and Chuck Schultz. They thought they were two nobodies their entire
lives so they were going to raise four somebodies. And so I talked about why
I'm so proud of this name and this is why I have the name Schultz, and the man
who introduced me came up and he had tears in his eyes--he was an older man
and he said, `I love the name Schultz. Don't ever change the name Schultz.'
But, more importantly for me, I realized I really felt like I was back.

GROSS: You write in your book that being opinionated made you, quote, "your
basic nightmare as a political wife, not to mention for any political
consultant." What was the advice that consultants were giving you about how
should express opinions and how independent you should or should not seem to

Ms. SCHULTZ: That got nipped in the bud fairly quickly. The whole concept
they were simply going to tell me, unsolicited, what they thought I ought to
be doing. And I do remember fairly early in the campaign two men started to
talk about, `You need to do this, and you need to do that' and I all of a
sudden looked at them and I just said, `You know what, never mistake
yourselves for people who give me orders because that's not how it's going to
work.' And it really helps to be so close to 50, doesn't it, Terry? Because,
you know, things just start coming out of you that you never thought you had,
at least for me.

And so, very early I think I determined that I wasn't going to change who I
am. I quit wearing tailored suits pretty quickly because I felt like I was
getting sawed in half by the end of the day. Because, you know, you're riding
in a car a lot of the day and I started wearing more flowing clothing that I
was used to wearing. And the other thing, I had a book come out in the middle
of the campaign full of my opinions. It was a collection of my columns, and
there was a lot of hand-wringing at first. `Oh, what are they going to use
against us?' But they never touched it. And I can tell you, I know why. It's
because women would never have trucked it. Women were not going to put up
with me or any other woman getting attacked for having her own views
especially when I had been paid to give my opinion.

GROSS: What are some of the rules as you think they have been written for
being a political wife, and what are some of those rules that you feel you
followed or knowingly broke?

Ms. SCHULTZ: The traditional view of political spouses, which is just
confounding to me, is that you're either a prop or a problem. And one of the
interesting things that's happened since the book has come out is I'm getting
e-mails from women whose husbands are running for elected office, and they are
saying things to me like, `Wow, you don't seem to have taken the advice that
I've been given.' One woman said, `They told me to wear a lot of beige.' Where
do they get this stuff? And I tell them, `Look, all I can tell you is I had a
whole book of my opinions come out. I was so Connie in that book, and Sherrod
won by almost 13 points. And I'm not saying that I helped him win, but it
sure didn't hurt him to have a real person in his life.

And so I just couldn't abide by this notion that I was just supposed to stand
there and look at my husband with this incredible look of adoration on my
face. I do adore my husband. I love him. Hearing the same speech time after
time after time, well, it's been kind of amusing to watch the coverage of Bill
Clinton. Can he sit still? Can he not look bored? You know, can he not be
the one talking? And I just thought, `Welcome to spousedom, Bill.' We've been
going through this for a very long time, and, you know, you look at Elizabeth
Edwards and how outspoken she is now and you look at the various candidates'
wives. I think they're starting to get the idea that they are supposed to be
themselves. Michelle Obama certainly is herself. That playbook, I don't know
who wrote it. I suspect it had very little input from women, and it's time to
throw it out.

GROSS: There's usually an inherent friction between politicians and the
journalists who cover them. Journalists often feel the politicians spin,
sometimes lie...

Ms. SCHULTZ: Mm-hmm. Yeah.

GROSS: ...often exaggerate. Politicians feel that they're misrepresented by
the press, that the press wants to go after private things that shouldn't be
public, and that the press takes things out of context and puts them out of
proportion. So did you have any reservations, as a journalist, about getting
into a romantic relationship and then a marriage with a politician because of
this inherent friction?

Ms. SCHULTZ: I had all kinds of reasons for being hesitant about being
involved with an elected official. I'd never ever dated one. I had never
covered Sherrod or interviewed him, or I would never have gone out with him.
He hates when I say that but it's true, you know. So I had all kinds of
reservations. There were tensions when we were dating at first, because he
would like to give me lectures on mainstream media, and you can imagine how
much fun that was. And I would, you know, immediately respond, `Well, you
want us when you need us and then you hate that you need us and you go after

But it was never--my concern was never about the coverage in terms of being
involved with Sherrod. My concern was simply making sure that everyone--how
do I say this?--I knew these were my opinions. They've always been my
opinions. I anticipated and, as it turned out it did happen
occasionally--only by men though. I've never had a woman journalist ever ask
me, `Can I still do my job with Sherrod in the Senate? Could I still do my
job if I was married to an elected official?' No women ever doubt that these
are my opinions. That was more my concern about being involved with Sherrod,
and in terms of when he was running, I knew that I was going to have to take a
leave of absence, and I was worried about what I could return to for a while
there. As I've said many times to people who make observations now about my
life, I'm the same person I always was. My life is very different.

GROSS: How controversial was it at your paper, the Cleveland Plain Dealer,
about whether you should or shouldn't give up your column for the duration of
your husband's political campaign?

Ms. SCHULTZ: Well, nobody was suggesting that I should at the Plain Dealer,
actually. I made that decision on my own. I mean, we certainly had a
conversation own. We certainly had a conversation early that once the
campaign picked up and if I needed to be on the campaign trail, then of course
I was going to have to take a leave of absence but this decision was all mine.
It came sooner than I had originally expected. But you know what? Ethics, so
much of ethics is about perception and avoiding even the perception of an
ethical conflict, and that's where I found myself landing pretty quickly. I
was limiting myself more and more on my topics to avoid any appearance of
parroting my husband, and in the newsroom I felt I was losing a whole circle
of friends. Not permanently, but I couldn't talk to them the way I used to
because I had gone from being a colleague to a source. I mean, we all had to
acknowledge that. And I also felt, at least at our paper, that some of my
colleagues--and I absolutely understand this--were bending over backwards to
show they weren't biased, and so our paper was the only paper in the state
really hammering Sherrod on a regular basis.

GROSS: Did being a journalist affect how you spoke to the press during your
husband's Senate campaign? And let me say a couple of things about this. As
a journalist, I'm sure you want people to be forthcoming to you and therefore

Ms. SCHULTZ: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

GROSS: might have felt a responsibility to be as forthcoming...


GROSS: ...with journalists when you were interviewed. At the same time,
being a journalist, you know that things can be taken out of context...

Ms. SCHULTZ: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: So how did being a journalist affect how you spoke to the press?

Ms. SCHULTZ: Well, you know, I just had a reporter say this to me the other
day who covered the race, he was interviewing me for C-SPAN and he said, `You
know, you didn't make it easy, because you'd come up and you immediately
wanted to talk shop.' And I did. You know, I'm a newsroom animal and I really
missed being at a newspaper. So my relationship with the press was different,
I suspect, from a lot of spouses. They were, I would say overwhelmingly very
respectful of me. I never fudged in my answers to them. They didn't
interview me a lot, to be honest with you. There wasn't a lot of that going
on. You know, perhaps they had their priorities straight, and Sherrod was the
one running. I think they were also, you know, especially small town
reporters would admit to being a little intimidated. Not by me personally, I
think, just by--I work at the largest paper in the state, so--and I did not
know this at the time, but apparently Sherrod was like really enjoying
reminding reporters that I was writing a book about the race. And I heard a
reporter say the other day that, you know, you made an awful lot of us really
nervous sometimes.' I had no idea that was going on.

GROSS: Did you make any gaffes in speaking to the press?

Ms. SCHULTZ: You know, I think there's one--I cite it in the book that there
were a couple of reporters who for a while were convinced that Sherrod was an
angry man. I don't know if you've ever heard Sherrod speak, but he's got a
very growly voice, and some people think that he's an angry guy, I guess, and
these reporters were convinced of that. They were--you know one of the things
I saw as a problem with a lot of political reporters is they tend to be
overwhelmingly white, middle-aged men who have been doing this a lot. Now, I
love middle-aged white men. I happen to be married to one., But if that's
who's covering races for the most part, you've got a problem because it's the
only perspective you're getting. And they tend to be very cynical. Sherrod
got in a race, gave up a safe House seat to run and, as crazy as it may sound
to people, he really just thought he needed to try this. It was the time.
And if he didn't do it he'd always regret it.

So I'm trying to dispel this notion that Sherrod is angry and so I talk about
this ping-pong table that I gave him for our anniversary. It was our second
anniversary, and I keep pointing out that no reporter really lauded me for
letting him have it in the living room for the whole season but I did, Terry.
It was right there in our living room. And I talked about how we would play
after a long drive or when he had a lot on his mind, we'd just play ping-pong
for a bit. You know, 1:00 in the morning, we're playing ping-pong just kind
of sorting stuff out.

Well, apparently the way I described it and I talked about how he would
pretend to jump the fence when he won, which was always. You know, imitate
the roar of the crowd and you know, he's competitive and he was making me
laugh. They read that to mean that even when he's playing ping-pong, he's
angry and that when he's playing ping-pong he thinks of the Iraq war and
whack! He hits the ball. And when he's thinking about Americans with no
health care, whack! He hits the ball. I never said that. And it was the
lead of the story and that was really an education for me. Because I thought,
well, you can have the best of intentions. You can say exactly what you
meant, and it can be interpreted differently.

GROSS: My guest is Connie Schultz. Her new memoir is called "...and His
Lovely Wife." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Connie Schultz. She's a
Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Her new book
is a memoir about her experiences on the campaign trail when her husband,
then-Congressman Sherrod Brown, was running for Senate, and he did win and
he's now serving in the Senate. Her memoir is called "...and His Lovely
Wife," because that's how she was often introduced.

When your husband, Sherrod Brown, was running for the US Senate from Ohio and
you were on the campaign trail with him, you know, a good deal of the time,
did it get you to reconsider where the line is between public and private for
politicians and their spouses?

Ms. SCHULTZ: I'm still wrestling with that one, to be honest with you. I've
seen some recent coverage that, you know, I keep thinking and rethinking it.
But I do think, bottom line--I just had someone ask me the other day about a
particular instance, and should the press being covering this? And I said,
`You know, you can't hold yourself out publicly as one person and be someone
else privately.' I mean, you just cannot. If you are like that, you deserve
to be outed.

And I think a lot of politicians in other families thought I was going to come
out and say, `The press goes way too far,' and I think occasionally the press
certainly do go too far. But I think your public life is open for scrutiny
and that's just the way it's going to be and you know, there's a good rule of
thumb to live your life by: Don't do anything you wouldn't want to read about
on page one.

GROSS: Did you feel like, `Well, what if I found out that I did
fill-in-the-blank when I was in college?'

Ms. SCHULTZ: I was so boring in college, Terry. I never worried so much
about that. You know what you worry about more? You worry about what people
can make up. And I saw that on blogs. I mean, people can just make up stuff,
and it gets traction.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Ms. SCHULTZ: And that's what you worry about more, I think, anyway that you
ought to worry about, how do we dog those rumors? And how do we make the
people who spread them accountable when they go by names like RedDogDaddy or
LizardLung. I mean, who are these people? And they're saying these horrible
things about you, and then all of a sudden reporters are asking because
they've read it on a blog. That worries me far more.

GROSS: Isn't the sad truth that a lot of people are going to judge what you
have to say more on your hair than the policy you're talking about?

Ms. SCHULTZ: Well, we're certainly seeing that right now.

GROSS: I'm not endorsing this but, you know, it just...

Ms. SCHULTZ: I know you're not.

GROSS: It's kind of the way it is sometime.

Ms. SCHULTZ: I think we've got to push back on it. And I'll confess, this
disappoints me more as a feminist when it's women writing this stuff. And I
just don't--you know, I finally decided to make my peace with that. It does
bother more. I want us to be better than this. I want our journalism to be
better than this. So I'm just going to start talking about it more as I go
around and do the drills and seminars and give the speeches that I give. I'm
going to talk about--one of the things I've wanted--you know, I wanted more
women journalists working because I thought we would elevate the coverage, so
let's get cracking!

GROSS: And, that said, let me just like bring it down a notch or two, how did
you deal with things like having your hair look good when you're on the road
and completely exhausted and just really mentally fatigued, too, because you
know that you're going to be onstage and you're going to be...

Ms. SCHULTZ: Yeah.

GROSS: ...on TV and all that?

Ms. SCHULTZ: Oh, this is so embarrassing. All right, Terry, I'll tell you.
I bought a pack of traveling rollers, electric rollers, and I went from a
woman who would never be seen in a bathrobe in public or anything to walking
around houses of people I'd just met with electric rollers in my hair...

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Ms. SCHULTZ: ...talking to them as I'm putting on makeup. You know, you
just lose all sense of parameters in terms of what you're willing to let
people see, because you figure, if they're opening their home for about an
hour or something, letting you get cleaned up, you can trust them. And if you
can't, well, what's the worst thing they're going to say about me, boy, does
she look awful in rollers. Well who doesn't, right? So I felt like I was
back in small town Ashtabula, where I grew up, where everybody used to walk
around in rollers on Saturday morning so they'd be ready for Saturday night.
In fact, the only things missing were the fuzzy slippers and the bathrobes.

So you do learn tricks of the trade and you tell yourself, `I can't believe
I've been reduced to this,' but, you know, you see enough pictures of yourself
looking like you just came out of, you know, the tumble dry and you think
you'd better do something make, you know--it's bizarre.

GROSS: Well, it's the part of politics that's show business, you know, where

Ms. SCHULTZ: Oh, there's no question.

GROSS: on stage and you've got to put on the makeup and the wig--I
mean, that's what they would do in the theaters, you know, put on the wig and
the costume.

Ms. SCHULTZ: Yeah.

GROSS: And so on. All right. OK. We're done with that.

Ms. SCHULTZ: Are you happy that I answered...

GROSS: We're done.

Ms. SCHULTZ: ...that, Terry? That better not be a blog title. "She wore
electric rollers."

GROSS: Now, let me change the mood completely here for a moment.

Ms. SCHULTZ: Sure.

GROSS: During your husband's Senate campaign, your father died.

Ms. SCHULTZ: Yeah.

GROSS: And, as he was dying, or maybe it after he died, you said to your
husband, `Stay in Washington.' There was a very important congressional vote,
and you wanted him to be there for that vote. And reading that, I kept
thinking how difficult it must have been for you to say that, and I'd really
like to hear why you gave your husband that advice and what your thought
process was like.

Ms. SCHULTZ: OK. Well, I was actually on my book tour, but I was in Ohio, I
was down in southern Ohio, and Cleveland's up north, where my dad, you know,
lived near Cleveland and he'd had a heart attack at 69. And my sister Leslie
called and left a frantic message, and they tried to revive him. `They'd gone
over--they're rushing him to University Hospital.' But then my brother called,
`It's not looking good, you'd better get up here.' And my dad was
unresponsive, he never came back. For two days he was on life support, and it
was really, really hard. I can't adequately convey how difficult it was. And
I'm trying to help every--you know, I'm just trying to coordinate everything.

And Sherrod keeps calling, and Sherrod says, `Do you want me to come home?'
And of course I would love for him to be there. I mean, there was not--as I
wrote the book the only thing I wanted more was for my dad to come back to
life. But there were some votes on--intelligence votes, and I knew that if
Sherrod missed those within days we would see another attack ad about how
Sherrod's supposedly soft on terrorism. And so I said to him--and it was
partly selfish on my part. Of course I don't want my husband to miss the
votes. I don't want these ads. I also don't want to hear him explaining.
You know, this happened in April. I didn't want to have to listen to him
explain for the next few months that the reason he wasn't there was because
his father-in-law was dying. I just thought, `I'm not going to be able to do
this.' People will look for my response every time he says it. It was so
close to the surface for me, as you can imagine.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Ms. SCHULTZ: And I just didn't want to put myself through that, so I think
it was the right thing to do. It was very hard for Sherrod, but it was
absolutely the right thing to do. And what I told myself--you know, I was a
single mom for 11 years. I was used to having to take care of everything.
And marrying a member of Congress, and especially marrying a candidate
certainly was no guarantee that I wouldn't still feel like a single mother
sometimes. And you talk to members' wives, especially those with young
children, they feel that way a lot.

What was--even after all that, Dad died after two days and Sherrod did come
back and was one of the pallbearers, and what was really hard for my
daughter--this is one of those campaign moments you can't forget, at least in
our family is--we buried my dad two days after he died, we drive home and
somebody had gotten into our driveway and put a Bush bumper sticker over
the--I had two bumper stickers on my car. I had Sherrod's, but I also had one
that's still on, I always have, I have it over my desk: `Well-behaved women
rarely make history.' And somebody put a Bush sticker over that, so it felt
particularly pointed. And my daughter was so upset, and my daughter's 20 and
she said, `Mom, couldn't they have left us alone today?' Because it was in the
paper that my dad had died. Plain Dealer had asked me to do a column about
his death, and I came back for that. And I turned to her and I said, `Honey,
there is no respite from a campaign. It's always going on.' And I think I was
realizing it at the same moment that I was communicating that to my daughter.

GROSS: Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist with the
Cleveland Plain Dealer. Her new memoir is called "...and His Lovely Wife."
It's about life on the campaign trail in 2006 while her husband, Sherrod
Brown, ran for his seat in the Senate. She'll be back in the second half of
the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Connie Schultz. Her new
memoir, "...and His Lovely Wife," is about her experiences as a political
candidate's wife. In 2006, her husband, Sherrod Brown, then a Democratic
congressman from Ohio, successfully campaigned for a seat in the US Senate.
Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist with the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

There were some really obnoxious and kind of dirty things that went on during
the campaign, and one example that stands out in my mind you were looking out
your window one day and saw two guys in suits run out of their car and take
your trash and put it...

Ms. SCHULTZ: Tried to take it. I stopped them, Terry.

GROSS: Oh, you stopped them?

Ms. SCHULTZ: I screamed like a banshee. I stopped them.

GROSS: What did you do?

Ms. SCHULTZ: I screamed, and my pug standing next to me, who's half blind
and partially deaf, was barking so loudly that she only had one paw touching
the ground. I mean, we really made a ruckus. But that was exactly two weeks
after Sherrod declared that he was running. And you know, when they pulled
up--we had just moved into this neighborhood, and at first I thought, `Wow,
they really do garbage differently. They wear suits when they pick up the
trash.' Then I realized it's a white van, it's unmarked, and they keep looking
around instead of picking them up and all of a sudden it dawned on me, `Oh my
god, they're stealing our trash!' So I opened the door and I started--it was a
very ladylike moment for me. `Get away from my trash!'

And it just hit me, you know, and I think--because I was so much on edge at
that moment anyway, it's like, `Oh my God! What are we doing with our lives?
How much is my life going to change? What's this going to do to our marriage?
And guys are stealing our trash already.' I felt like I was starring in a
really bad B movie. It was just--it was bad.

GROSS: So did you ever find out who they were?

Ms. SCHULTZ: No. Nope. All I can tell you is we had a lot of trash piled
up in our garage, and the night before the election--our trash is picked up on
Monday night--Sherrod and I took out a ton of trash and just left it on
the...(unintelligible)...and it felt so great. How silly does that sound?

GROSS: So you had to hide your trash during most of the campaign?

Ms. SCHULTZ: Yeah, we either took it somewhere else. You know, we weren't
home a lot so we didn't have as much as we would have had if we'd been living
out of our home every day. Yeah, all the paper stuff had to be shredded. And
it wasn't like we felt we had anything to hide. Again, it goes to, what can
people make up about you. You know what I mean? And plus, it's just
unseemly, the thought of somebody going through your personal trash. But it
was so liberating that night to just dump it all there on
the...(unintelligible)...and then we just walked back to the house and you
know, it was almost over and we were so aware in that moment, so much was
almost over.

GROSS: You describe yourself as a feminist, so standing back and looking at
the time that you spent on the campaign trail, you know, being the spouse of

Ms. SCHULTZ: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...of the candidate and meeting men and women and being introduced so
often as "and his lovely wife," how far do you feel like we've come--do you
know what I mean--as women in the larger society? I mean...

Ms. SCHULTZ: Yeah.

GROSS: I think a lot of women are in jobs and have friends and family where
feminism is just--whether you use the word or not--it's just kind of taken for
granted. I mean, it's just assumed that we're...

Ms. SCHULTZ: Well, I think that we...

GROSS: ...equal and so on. But that's not always the case in the larger


GROSS: America. So were you pleased or disappointed in that area with
what you found?

Ms. SCHULTZ: I was disappointed. There's no question I was disappointed.
Washington's been a huge adjustment for me, because I can be anywhere else in
the country now especially, I have this new book, I write my column and, first
and foremost what I do for a living, except in Washington, where I am a
senator's wife. And when we had Senate orientation, one of the things that we
wives would like to change for next time is we do have a demonstration on how
we can order Senate china. And that's just so offensive to me, when you think
of all that's going on in the world and all the problems that our
newly-elected husbands were going to be tackling.

I also have become much more outspoken about talking about how I'm a feminist,
because women are often--especially younger women--are afraid of the word, and
I keep telling them being a feminist never meant figuring out who you could
neglect. I love my family, I love my husband. I, you know, packed his
lunches and made sure his shirts were ironed. That didn't make me less of a
feminist. Because it was about choices, and it's about women being able to
make various choices for their lives.

But what was heartening--and this was in Ohio, and it surprised me--is how
many times I was invited to speak to a group of women, and it would be
standing room only--not because of me personally, most of them didn't even
know who I was at that point, but they had heard that there was this women out
there who was really outspoken and her husband wasn't reining her in, and they
would come and they would tell me their stories.

And one of the interesting things about it is more and more women were
organizing their own political groups in Ohio because they got tired, as one
women put it, of being asked to make coffee and do the Xeroxing at Democratic
headquarters in her county. And the women thought, `Well, we'll just form our
own group,' and they were raising money, sometimes outraising the traditional
party in terms of money for campaigns, and they were women my age and older,
for the most part. Not a lot of young women. These were women who, at an age
where we're supposedly supposed to become invisible in our country because
we're not real young anymore and we aren't procreating at a furious rate, and
they were making change in the country. They were deciding that they were a
viable force for change and they were no longer going to be ignored. And in
that way, I'm increasingly encouraged.

Probably my biggest disappointment at times is with younger women, but I do
hear them when they say my generation of women hasn't been particularly
supportive of them. And I keep reminding women my age, `Look, we don't have
their midriffs, but they don't have our wisdom.' And there is a tradeoff, and
we really need to carry as we climb.

GROSS: Connie Schultz, thanks so much for talking with us.

Ms. SCHULTZ: Thanks.

GROSS: Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist with the
Cleveland Plain Dealer. Her new memoir is called "...and His Lovely Wife."

Coming up, we talk with our linguist Geoff Nunberg about the language of the
presidential debates. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Linguist Geoff Nunberg on the language used during
the current presidential debates

Our linguist, Geoff Nunberg, has been following the presidential debates,
listening to what the candidates have to say and what language they're using
to say it. Geoff is the author of a book about political language called
"Talking Right," which has just come out in paperback. It analyzes the
political vocabulary of the right and the left. Geoff teaches at the school
of information at the University of California at Berkeley. He chairs the
usage panel of the American Heritage Dictionary.

Well, hi, Geoff. Welcome back to the show.


GROSS: As a linguist, what are you listening for, and what have been your
general impressions as you listen to the debates?

Mr. NUNBERG: Well, you know, my real impression as I listen to the debates
is mostly stupefaction. The other day after the Democratic debate in Iowa, I
played about four or five of these things that I had taped altogether. It was
like listening to a marathon of "Last Comic Standing." You just, you get one
after the other of these questions that really are not designed to elicit
anything like a nuanced or insightful discussion of the issues, and these
30-second responses or show of hands, you know, `Do you have a gun in your
house? Raise your hand.' `Tell us about your personal God.' `What decisive
moment shaped your character?' My daughter and I spent an hour on that one
while she was doing her college application the other day.

So if you listen to these at great length you might feel, as far as advancing
the democratic process, they're not very informative. At the same time, you
do get a sense, I think, both of the individual candidates and of the kind of
language that's going to be crucial in 2008 in determining how the country
falls out.

GROSS: Are you hearing shifts in how the candidates, Republicans and
Democrats, are talking about the war in Iraq?

Mr. NUNBERG: Oh, yeah. From both, but more from the Democrats a bit, but
from the Republicans, too. This began, really, with the 2006 elections. The
history of this administration's involvement in Iraq, in a sense, if you look
back on it, you could think of as a series of linguistic miscues and slogan
recalls, I think of them. So one after another. `Wanted dead or alive'
morphed into `We don't know where he is and we really don't care.' And of
course there was `Mission accomplished' just after the Iraq invasion, which,
I'm sure, the administration wished immediately, almost, that it could take
back and replace with something a little more noncommittal like `Way to go' or
something like that. There was `Bring them on.' There was `When they stand
up, we'll stand down,' and so on. And finally in the fall of 2006, there's
Bush saying, `We've never been stay the course' which gave all of the news
outlets, including Fox, an opportunity to run lots of clips of Bush saying
exactly that.

Now, if you listen to the Republican debates, you still hear people talking in
those terms. `Don't stampede for the exit signs.' `We've got to support the
troops' and so on. But those comments are aimed largely at a Republican base
that's going to be--determine who wins in the primaries, and it's not clear
whether that has any more purchase with the larger electorate. And one thing
that's significant, for example, is that the Democrats who are talking about
withdrawing and is really a question of just when. Is it going to be
immediately? Is it going to be nine months? Is it going to be 12 months, and
so on, are not defensive about that and don't need to make a show of saying we
support the troops. In fact, when they bring that up, it's only by way of
justifying their votes to continue funding the war. So there's a sense, if
you listen to both sides, of an acknowledgment, implicit or not, that the
voters are very much troubled about the war and that public opinion has
shifted against the war.

GROSS: Geoff, do you have a clip you can play of something that struck you as
an interesting rhetorical style in talking about the war in Iraq?

Mr. NUNBERG: Yeah. When you listen to the way the Republicans in particular
talk about the war, there's this effort--most notably from Giuliani, but also
from McCain and Romney and most of the other candidates, to defocus Iraq and
make this more a question of the struggle against terrorism, or as the
Republicans are continually putting it `Islamic terrorism.' Here's Giuliani,
for example, faulting the Democrats for not talking about Islamic terrorism.

(Soundbite of presidential debate)

Mr. RUDY GIULIANI: In four Democratic debates, not a single Democratic
candidate said the word `Islamic terrorism.' Now, that is taking political
correctness to extremes. It really is.

Unidentified Man: So if ...

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. GIULIANI: Now the reality is--the reality is that you do not achieve
peace through weakness and appeasement. Weakness and appeasement should not
be a policy of the American government. We should seek a victory in Iraq and
in Baghdad and we should define the victory. And I thought the piece by
O'Hanlon and Pollack last week in The New York Times, which I have to frankly
tell you, when I read it in the morning--I read it twice--and I checked--New
York Times--but it was The New York Times. It was.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. GIULIANI: And it said, `We just might win in Iraq.' Now, why we would
want to retreat in the face at least some empirical evidence that General

Man: But that's military progress, no political progress. You'd continue to
support the surge even if there's no political progress?

Mr. GIULIANI: The reality is that if we can bring stability to Iraq and we
can give them a chance to develop stability, that's what we should be trying
to accomplish. This is part of an overall terrorist war against the United
States, and that's why I noted Senator McCain...

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: Geoff, what else do you hear in that clip that stands out for you in
terms of the language that Giuliani's using?

Mr. NUNBERG: Well, on the one hand, there's clearly an appeal to that part
of the Republican base, the people who'll be voting in the primaries who still
think that we have to stay the course and hold out for victory in Iraq. On
the other hand, what's going to be more interesting, I think particularly in
the general election, is this continuing effort to make the war in Iraq seem,
as Giuliani puts it, part of an overall terrorist war against the United
States and, in particular, an Islamist terrorist war against the United
States. And in a sense this continues the neoconservative line on what this
struggle's about.

GROSS: In your book "Talking Right" you analyze the language of the left and
the right. Are you hearing coded language in the presidential debates? And
if so, what are some of the linguistic battlefields?

Mr. NUNBERG: I think it's clearest, for example, when you listen to the way
people talk about health insurance. Everybody agrees this is a problem, and
while the Republicans are still saying we have the greatest system of health
care in the world, they are--at least the front-runners are not denying that
there are problems that have to be resolved.

Now, when you listen to the Democrats talk about it, you hear this, well, I
guess people like to say, a revived populist language. People are talking
about special interest, entrenched interest, insurance companies lining the
pockets of big business--these are the phrases you're hearing. Not just from
Obama and Edwards, but from Clinton, as well. They're talking tough on trade
and job outsourcing and rising inequality and so on.

The Republicans don't, for example, ever talk about insurance companies or
pharmaceutical companies. Those phrases are just about absent from the
debates. What they do talk about is market-based solutions or market
solutions, the idea being, in that way of thinking of things, well, it's the
market and the government, and these are these two opposing ways of thinking
about things. And what they're trying to do is retain this old sense of the
government as demonized that's worked very well for the Republicans since the
Reagan years. Really, it was Reagan, although it had been around before that,
who established this idea: government is part of the problem, not part of the
solution. The scariest words in the English language are `I'm from the
government and I'm here to help' and so on. So that Republicans who vote
government, that word, as a kind of bogeyman and are hoping that in so doing
they can retain a market-based approach. Now, whether that will still work is
hard to know.

The role of government's going to be a crucial issue in the 2008 elections and
going forward, whether the Republican rhetoric can be maintained. For
instance, Republicans continue to talk about socialized medicine. Tancredo
even talks about `womb to tomb' medical care. That's a phrase I thought had
died out in 1973. Whether that still has the power as a specter to frighten
the American people remains to be seen, because there is an increasing concern
about government's failure to deliver in Katrina on health care, with regard
to infrastructure, pensions and retirement and so on. And that's really, I
think, where the struggle between left and right is going to be fought out,
both substantively and linguistically over the coming years.

GROSS: Geoff, do you think the so-called values issues are the issues where
political language is most loaded? And I'm thinking about issues like
abortion, gay marriage. And are you hearing as much about those issues and
are you hearing, you know, loaded or coded language in discussing those

Mr. NUNBERG: You're hearing that among the Republicans in these cat fights
over who was pro-life when and how pro-life is Romney and what did he sign
when he was governor of Massachusetts, and this will certainly come up with
Giuliani over the course of the campaign. You hear, I think, less of them
than you would have, certainly, in 2004. The issue, for instance, of `don't
ask, don't tell,' when the Republicans are asked about that, their answer
tends to be, `Well, this isn't the time to bring this up, we're in the middle
of a war' and so on. So they avoid the question on tactical grounds rather
than on grounds of principle.

The Democrats, at the same time, they all appeared in the Logo Network to
address issues of interest to gay and lesbian Americans. Apart from Kucinich,
they all declared strong support for civil unions and expressed reservations
about gay marriage. But these aren't going to be, in the primaries, at least,
strong issues, evidently, apart from abortion perhaps among the Republicans.
Whether they'll emerge in 2008 in the general elections as important issues
remains to be seen. My sense is they're going to be less important than they
have been in the last few elections, partly because the war is so important,
and partly because economic concerns are beginning to become equally important
to Americans.

GROSS: Geoff, in your book "Talking Right," you suggested that Democrats
should learn from the Republicans and adopt a new populist language. Do you
hear that happening in the debates?

Mr. NUNBERG: Yeah. I think you hear that happening actually from before the
debates. You could hear it certainly in a lot of the 2006 senatorial
campaigns, Tester in Montana, Webb in Virginia, Casey in Pennsylvania,
Klobuchar in Minnesota, Sherrod Brown in Ohio, certainly. Now, some of these
people were described as centrist or conservative Democrats because of their
positions on social issues--Tester and Webb, for example-but all of them were
arguing a very strong case for economic populism. And I think the fact that
they were identified at the time as conservative Democrats is an indication of
how the liberal/conservative distinction's sorted out now so that your
position on abortion, say, is to people much more important in determining
whether you're a liberal or a conservative than your position, say, on health

But I think that the increased concern over these issues, the increased use of
this populist language--and not the populist language of the Republican but
the sort of truly populist language or historically populist language, in any
event, is a sign perhaps that that distinction is being redefined more in its
traditional terms around economic issues than around social issues so that
issues like health care, education, pensions and so on become more crucial in
deciding who's a liberal and who's a conservative than questions like abortion
and gun control.

GROSS: My guest is our linguist, Geoff Nunberg. We'll talk more after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is FRESH AIR's linguist, Geoff Nunberg. We're talking about
the language of the presidential debates. His book about the language of
politics has just come out in paperback. It's called "Talking Right."

Now, you wrote that conservatives had managed to move the center of gravity of
American political language to the right. Do you hear any shift in that while
you're listening to the presidential debates?

Mr. NUNBERG: Well, it's too early to say. After the 2004 elections, in
particular, there was this great concern among the Democrats about having lost
the framing wars and needing to reframe and remessage and so forth. A lot of
that was just about the Republican skill at framing bumper stickers. No Child
Left Behind, Clear Skies, Healthy Forest, things like that. I think the
lesson of the 2006 elections, particularly with regard to the war but with
regard to other things, in addition, is that bumper stickers only take you so
far. I think the Republicans' real advantage has been in their ownership of
notions like values, tradition, bias is an important term, and their ability
to stigmatize the liberal label itself. And those are linguistic advantages
that come not just from using the words but from building the words into a set
of very powerful narratives.

At this point, it isn't clear yet whether the Democrats are going to be able
to redress that balance by creating narratives of their own and language that
stands for it. Right now, though the Democrats enjoy an advantage, certainly,
because of general dissatisfaction with the war and with the administration,
there isn't yet the sense that the Democratic Party stands for something in
the way there is that the Republican Party stands for something, and that
still is something they're going to have to redress.

GROSS: You mention that the word "liberal" has been stigmatized. Hillary
Clinton, in one of the debates--this was in the YouTube debate, she was asked
by one of the YouTubers if she was a liberal. Let's hear a clip of that and
then I'd be interested in hearing what you thought of her response to this

(Soundbite of presidential debate)

Mr. ROB PORTER: Hi, my name is Rob Porter and I'm from Irvine, California.
I have a question for Hillary Clinton. Mrs. Clinton, how would you define
the word liberal, and would you use this word to describe yourself? Thank

Senator HILLARY CLINTON: You know, Rob, you know, it is a word that
originally meant that you were for freedom, that you were for the freedom to
achieve, that you were willing to stand against big power and on behalf of the
individual. Unfortunately, in the last 30, 40 years it has been turned up on
its head and it's been made to seem as though it is a word that describes big
government, totally contrary to what its meaning was in the 19th and early
20th century.

I prefer the word "progressive," which has a real American meaning, going back
to the progressive era at the beginning of the 20th century. I consider
myself a modern progressive, someone who believes strongly in individual
rights and freedoms, who believes that we are better as a society when we're
working together and when we find ways to help those may not have all the
advantages in life get the tools they need to lead a more productive life for
themselves and their families so....

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: Geoff, do you hear that as a clue that Democrats are trying to
substitute the word "progressive" for the word liberal because the word
liberal has been stigmatized?

Mr. NUNBERG: Oh, sure. Democrats have been trying to do that for a long
time, and if anybody can make it happen, I suppose it's Hillary Clinton.
They've--given how the word liberal has been trashed and loaded with all these
invidious stereotypes, they want to revive this progressive label, going back,
as Clinton suggests, to the beginning of the 20th century; some people take it
back to 1948 and Henry Wallace and the progressive campaigns.

There's a sense--when I see this I think of what the Ford Motor Company tried
to do in 1960 when the Edsel line kind of collapsed and they stopped making
Edsel cars, but they continued to make some of the same cars only branded them
as a Galaxy and they did very well for a number of years on the assumption
that nobody would notice it was the same car. And you sometimes have that
sense about the progressive label. And if you abandon the liberal label, as
Clinton and a lot of other Democrats would like to do, you basically hand it
over to the Republicans and the right to define. One interesting side note to
this is that, in fact, if you look at polls, for the first time in about 25
years, the number of people who call themselves liberals in America is
actually going up. It isn't yet even with the number of people who describe
themselves as conservative, but it's gone up substantially after about 25
years of being under 20 percent.

GROSS: You've been watching all of the debates. Do you see them as actual
debates? I mean, when, you know, like do you see them as being, you know,
traditional debates the way the word debate used to mean?

Mr. NUNBERG: No, they have nothing to do with debates in the traditional
sense. Not only are they nothing that a high school or college debating team
would recognize, but they really don't have a lot to do with this effort to
lay out and explore the issues in any detail. The whole system militates
against that--and the way they're done. The triviality of the questions, the
effort to create these "gotcha" moments, to set up little confrontations
between the candidates and so on. All are aimed at anything but a serious
exploration of the issues. And it may be that just modern American televised
politics isn't capable of doing that, and that that's the one thing you can
hope that ultimately the Internet or new technologies will be able to supply.
But that isn't clear, either.

GROSS: No, it's maybe heading in the other way, isn't it in some ways?

Mr. NUNBERG: Right, right.

GROSS: Because the Internet is where all the gaffes are spread.

Mr. NUNBERG: The Internet, right.

GROSS: All the embarrassing moments.

Mr. NUNBERG: Right, your macaca moment is instantly out...

GROSS: Exactly, exactly.

Mr. NUNBERG: ...on YouTube. And also with the Internet, you basically can
live your entire life without encountering anybody whose politics are remotely
different from yours.

GROSS: Well, Geoff, thanks a lot for talking with us.

Mr. NUNBERG: Thanks so much, Terry.

GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is FRESH AIR's linguist. His book about the language of
politics, "Talking Right," has just come out in paperback.


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


Daughter of Warhol star looks back on a bohemian childhood in the Chelsea Hotel

Alexandra Auder's mother, Viva, was one of Andy Warhol's muses. Growing up in Warhol's orbit meant Auder's childhood was an unusual one. For several years, Viva, Auder and Auder's younger half-sister, Gaby Hoffmann, lived in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. It was was famous for having been home to Leonard Cohen, Dylan Thomas, Virgil Thomson, and Bob Dylan, among others.


This fake 'Jury Duty' really put James Marsden's improv chops on trial

In the series Jury Duty, a solar contractor named Ronald Gladden has agreed to participate in what he believes is a documentary about the experience of being a juror--but what Ronald doesn't know is that the whole thing is fake.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue