The "Words That Work" Guy Utters Words That Don’t

Frank Luntz, the bestselling author of Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear, recently got himself into trouble by uttering words that didn’t work—and making matters even worse for himself afterwards.

If you’re not aware of Luntz’s work, he’s the wordsmith behind the 1994 Republican “Contract With America” and the person who convinced estate tax opponents to label it the “death tax” instead (they did, and it worked). He frequently appears on the Fox News Channel as the moderator of focus groups, one of his firm’s specialties.

Last week, he spoke to a group of students at the University of Pennsylvania. He decided to go “off the record.” And that’s when the trouble began.

Frank Luntz Larry D. Moore CC BY-SA 3.0

Here’s the write-up from Mother Jones Magazine:

“At one point, Luntz was asked about political polarization. He replied that he had something important to say on this matter but was apprehensive about speaking openly; doing so, he explained, could land him in trouble. Members of the audience groaned; some called out for Luntz to continue off the record. Luntz asked if anyone was recording the event, and Eric Kaplan, a reporter from the college paper, the Daily Pennsylvanian, indicated that he was. Luntz requested that he turn off his recording device. Kaplan did so and agreed that this part of Luntz’s talk would remain off the record. But one of the students present, Aakash Abbi, a junior majoring in philosophy, politics, and economics, started to record Luntz on his iPhone (without letting Luntz know), and Abbi has provided that recording to Mother Jones.

Believing he was speaking privately to the dozens of students present, Luntz proceeded to gripe about conservative talk radio and its impact on political polarization:

‘…Marco Rubio’s getting his ass kicked….He’s getting destroyed! By Mark Levin, by Rush Limbaugh, and a few others. He’s trying to find a legitimate, long-term effective solution to immigration that isn’t the traditional Republican approach, and talk radio is killing him.’”

Luntz’s political analysis is spot on. But many Republican insiders are terrified to speak ill of talk show hosts like Rush Limbaugh, since the radio hosts mercilessly punish apostates.

But it’s Luntz’s response to this leaked tape that made matters even worse. He blamed the University—and pulled the plug on a scholarship he gave to the school. He said this to The Daily Pennsylvanian:

“’I can’t imagine a speaker coming to Penn and being so open. I can’t imagine a speaker coming to Penn and being so candid,’ he said. ‘Frankly, I think it’ll have a chilling effect on whether speakers do or don’t come. I wish it didn’t.’”

“He also added that he would not renew a scholarship in his father’s name for students to travel to Washington, D.C.”

“’Call me naive, but I thought it was possible to have an open, honest conversation about American politics and not make it a national conversation, which is what it has become,’ Luntz said.”

Got that? Luntz says this is Penn’s fault. And I’m not buying the “naïve” act—Luntz is seasoned enough to know that going off the record is fraught with risks and chose to do so anyway.

As a political professional, Luntz knows all about then-Senator Obama getting weeks of bad press in 2008 for claiming at an “off the record” fundraiser that many blue collar types “get bitter” and “cling to guns or religion.” He knows all about Mitt Romney’s infamous, furtively-recorded “47 percent” video, which sent his campaign way off message.

So he took a risk. It didn’t pan out. But instead of taking responsibility and acknowledging that he should have known better, he blamed a college kid for betraying him, and then compounded his error by acting spitefully and pulling his scholarship from the school.

Perhaps he should have focus grouped his response first. Or, he could have just had the courage to stand up for his convictions.

Note: I chose to take Mr. Luntz’s response at face value. There’s another possibility. As Don Draper says on Mad Men, “If you don’t like the conversation people are having, change the conversation.” The ferocity of Luntz’s response may serve to change the conversation from his comments to the student’s behavior, successfully muting some of the fallout.

Photo credit: Larry D. Moore CC BY-SA 3.0; h/t Political Wire

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