Message Received

Posted: Jul 30, 2004 12:00 AM

There?s an art form to answering a question. Inside-the-Beltway types call it ?staying on message,? but it really just amounts to ignoring all distractions and talking about what you want to talk about, not what your interviewer, interrogator or intrepid debate opponent want to talk about.

Some people are better at this than others.

For example, it?s safe to assume that, on the eve of the Democratic national convention, Teresa Heinz Kerry didn?t want to be talking about why she tells people to ?shove it.?

She wanted to be talking about important things: Her husband?s service in Vietnam, or about the fact that she speaks five languages. Instead, she went off message in a confrontation with an editor from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. The incident happened after Heinz Kerry finished a brief pep talk to Pennsylvania Democrats. ?We need to turn back some of the creeping, un-Pennsylvanian and sometimes un-American traits that are coming into some of our politics,? she told them.

The newspaper?s Colin McNickle then asked Heinz Kerry what she meant by ?un-American activity.? ?I didn?t say that. I didn?t say that,? she sputtered, before heading off into slightly more dangerous ground. ?No, I didn?t say that, I did not say ?activity? or ?un-American.? Those were your words,? she claimed.

Now one lesson here is, in this age when everything is on tape (except of course visits to the National Archives by former national security advisors -- we can trust them), don?t claim you were misquoted unless you really were.

Heinz Kerry hadn?t mentioned ?activity,? but she had talked about ?un-American traits.? Still, instead of either answering McNickle?s question or returning to her message of hope, growth and opportunity (or whatever her message is), Heinz Kerry told the reporter, ?You said something I didn?t say -- now shove it.? Poor form -- unless her message was ?she speaks her mind, even when she?s wrong,? in which case it works.

Her husband?s not a lot better at staying on point.

Over the July 4 weekend, John Kerry told an Iowa newspaper, ?I oppose abortion, personally. I don?t like abortion. I believe life does begin at conception.?

Now, there are plenty of things a Democratic candidate wants to be talking about this year. Abortion isn?t among them. After all, there really isn?t much room for gain on this issue. A recent Gallup Poll of women ages 18 and older found that only 6 percent of pro-life and 3 percent of pro-choice women say abortion will matter when they vote.

With nothing to gain, Kerry would have been better off just dodging the issue, as his running mate Sen. John Edwards does. ?Edwards twice did not respond when asked if he, too, believes life begins at conception,? The Washington Post reported dryly on July 11. Now, there?s a man who stays on message.

Luckily for all of us, the 10 members of National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States stayed ?on message.? It didn?t always look as if they would be able to, though.

Loyal Townhall readers may recall a piece last April where an intrepid columnist called for the commission to be shut down, unless it could make serious recommendations about what we need to do to prevent the next attack. ?We need more intelligence. We need better intelligence. We need to hire some people who can think like terrorists. We don?t know where the next attack will be, or how it?ll be carried out. But we must find out,? I wrote.

Back then it didn?t seem the commission could accomplish that. Hearings were being interrupted by applause -- as if those watching thought they were witnessing a sporting event, instead of an inquest into why 3,000 Americans were killed. The attorney general publicly challenged a commission member, and she responded with an op-ed in The Washington Post.

But the commission pressed ahead, completed its work and published an excellent report. They unanimously answered the question: ?What do we need to do to make ourselves safer.? The commission wants the U.S. to stay on the offensive against terrorism, improve congressional oversight of homeland security and intelligence gathering, and reform the intelligence community.

Now it?s in the hands of our elected officials. President Bush says he?ll consider implementing some of the commission?s suggestions by executive order. Some lawmakers will cut short their usual August vacation as the House and Senate hold hearings. That?s a start.

We the voters must keep the pressure on. Congress should take action, or else explain why it isn?t acting. It might also help if two well-known senators, Messieurs Kerry and Edwards, would take some time off the campaign trail to do their day jobs. Sen. Kerry says he?s ?reporting for duty.? Well, we need him here in Washington, taking part in hearings and helping shape the future of our country.

Our national security may depend upon whether our politicians, like the 9/11 Commission, can stay ?on message.?