Beltway Beat: The Luntz list

John McCaslin
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Posted: Feb 01, 2002 12:00 AM
With the season of awards shows upon us, we asked Republican pollster and MSNBC focus group guru Frank Luntz to name the year's best political communicators. "In this town, creating a list like this is the surest way to make enemies," Luntz told us. Nevertheless, here's how some of Washington's political elite have scored in the pollster's dial groups and listening sessions across the country. Among Democrats, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman of Connecticut has returned to the top spot as the party's best message-meister. "The way he presents himself, it is virtually impossible to tell whether he is a Republican or Democrat - and that's what voters like," says Luntz. The one word people most often use to describe him: "reasonable." Luntz also singles out Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) as a very strong communicator, but with a caveat. "Up through the fall, Daschle was incredible," he says. "His soft-spoken demeanor and laid-back approach won over virtually everyone. But his more partisan tones in the past two months are hurting him among swing voters." Among Republicans, President Bush ranks first ("the dials go through the roof"), and several in his administration, most notably Vice President Richard Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, "are home runs almost every time they speak." In fact, Luntz refers to them as the "Sonny and Cher" of the administration. "Cheney is so calm and so earnest in his words and delivery that it's impossible not to like him or agree with him, while Rumsfeld is the wisecracking, in-your-face (smart aleck) that makes you want to listen," he says. Two congressional Republicans are also communication standouts: Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania and Rep. J.C. Watts Jr. of Oklahoma. "People simply agree with what they say and how they say it," says Luntz. But the Luntz award for the single best communicator of 2002 goes to former Education Secretary William J. Bennett. "His message of pride, patriotism, faith and moral conviction is exactly what Americans want to hear right now. Several people almost broke their dials registering their approval." 90,000 MISSING The following not-so-fun fact is presented today by Rep. Clifford Stearns, R-Fla., who gives us a detailed breakdown on the illegal immigrants roaming about our land (now you'll understand why President Bush is taking the "sleeper terrorist" threat so seriously). "Out of the nearly 9 million illegal aliens now in the country," the congressman says, "more than 90,000 are from Middle East nations, including Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan." In other words, not just nations with close ties to terrorism are harboring al Qaeda cells - knowingly or unknowingly. MYRIAD MINDS How to enjoy freedom and security at the same time is the challenge facing most everybody in this country, not the least being D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, whose tourist-dependent city of monuments, memorials and museums remains half-barricaded owing to the terrorist threat. "We clearly do not know how to do it," admits Norton, the District' of Columbia's nonvoting representative in Congress. "Nobody knows how to do it because nobody has ever had to do it." So, this column has learned, Norton will soon introduce a bill called the "Open Society With Security Act," which would establish a 21-member presidential commission to "simply look at how we can make the unprecedented accommodation between security against dangerous global terrorism on the one hand and the maintenance of an open and free society on the other." Norton foresees a commission consisting not only of security experts ("security is too important in an open, free society to be left to security people," she says) but law enforcement, the military, architects, city planners, historians, sociologists, engineers - even artists. "Put them all at the table," she says. "Let them thrash it out and advise us." BUSH REWIND In his State of the Union address Tuesday night, President Bush in 48 minutes outlined 39 new or expanded initiatives, significantly fewer than the 104 initiatives proposed by President Clinton in his 2000 State of the Union speech. "It's a pleasure to watch a State of the Union Address largely devoted to carrying out the federal government's proper function of providing national defense," says Cato Institute Executive Vice President David Boaz. "Too many recent State of the Union speeches have involved a laundry list of proposals that exceed the powers granted to the federal government in the Constitution." COWARDS AND SUCH Regarding our item this week on former President George Bush supporting a movement to march the ROTC back onto the Yale University campus, where it's been banned since the Vietnam War, reader James K. Wholey writes: "I am a mid '70s graduate of Brown (which, in its characteristic determination to let no liberal trend get past it, also did away with ROTC, about the same time as Yale), who nevertheless subsequently served in the military. "Afterwards, I got my law degree at Penn, one of the few Ivies that, to its credit, had and has retained ROTC throughout all the turmoil and trends; and I there encountered a classical citation used as a sort of motto by the oft-beleagered administrators of the program - and which has stayed with me to this day: "That (state) which separates its scholars from its warriors will have its thinking done by cowards, and its fighting by fools." - Thucydides, 'The Peloponnesia' OUT OF CONTEXT Robert Altman chose the wrong period of American history to blast his own country. The "Gosford Park" director recently told the Times of London: "When I see an American flag flying, it's a joke." He then added: "This present government in America I just find disgusting, the idea that George Bush could run a baseball team successfully - he can't even speak! I just find him an embarrassment." So embarrassing, Altman vowed: "I'd be very happy to stay here (in England). ... There's nothing in America that I would miss at all." That was all nationally syndicated radio host Oliver North needed to hear. The retired Marine encouraged his nearly 3 million listeners to call the New York office of "the traitor" and tell him "to stay in England." "From Sharon Stone to the Baldwin Brothers and now Robert Altman - Ollie and this show are simply sick of these Hollywood elites threatening to leave America because they disagree with this administration. So we called Altman on it," the show's executive producer, Griff Jenkins, tells this column. Altman's response? "I am a proud American, and a proud New Yorker who has lived in that great city for 30 years," he says in a statement. "I grew up in Kansas City and I served this country during wartime. I truly regret that any of my comments have been taken out of context."