The Common Man As Parrot

For months now, Campaign Desk has watched as campaign talking points (or key lines from attack ads and campaign speeches) slowly seep into the public’s vocabulary like one of those irritating song lyrics that you can’t get out of your brain.

You know how it goes: soon enough, as the process unfolds, the press is quoting John Q. Citizen, a 49-year-old bartender, gun owner and churchgoer from swing state Flohiowa and his wife Susie Q., who owns her own seamstress shop — both of whom are suddenly as on-message as any campaign spokesperson — parroting talking points right back at reporters, who dutifully report them as examples of the wisdom of the common man.

After a quick survey of recent stories, it’s clear to Campaign Desk that we can all forget those dated worries that aliens from outer space are beaming radio messages into our craniums. It’s worse than that; it’s folks like Ed Gillespie of the Republican National Committee and Stephanie Cutter of the Kerry campaign who have successfully infiltrated our brainpans.

You’ve heard, no doubt, that Bush is strong but stubborn (or decisive or resolute) — a favorite press storyline — and that he offers “steady leadership in times of change,” will “stay the course,” and is “taking the fight to the terrorists.” Kerry, as the Bush camp tells it, is a liberal flip-flopper and, as a recent ad from an independent group would have you believe, someone who perhaps didn’t deserve his Vietnam medals.

Accordingly, CBS News today brings us the words of one Bonny Holland of Columbus, Ohio, “relaxing on a friend’s porch, her glass of bourbon set to the side: “I think [Bush] is decisive. I think he really has the best interest of this country at heart … I don’t think he’s worried about where he’s going next and I just think we have to fight terrorism.”

The Arizona Daily Sun reports today that “Web designer Jon Anderson” of Flagstaff said he “supports Bush because he said [Bush] does what he says.”

What is Harry Salverson, 45, owner of a small manufacturing company in Cleveland, Ohio, worried about, according to the Rockford [Illinois] Register Star? “My concern would be changing horses in mid-stream with a conflict going on overseas …”

From today’s St. Petersburg Times: “‘Bush is strong and straight to the point,’ said Glenn Martin, a 51-year-old defense contractor [from Pensacola, Florida]. ‘Unlike Kerry, Bush does not seem — what’s the word? — full of c—p.’”

And this: “‘President Bush is … going after the terrorists, instead of waiting for them to come after us,’ retired engineer Lansing Smith said, hunched over the Formica counter [in Pensacola]. ‘John Kerry’s just a flip-flopper. His 20 years in the Senate has been nothing but liberal.’”

And this: “Over and over again Monday people [in Pensacola] questioned whether Kerry deserved all his medals and noted — incorrectly — that few of the swift boat crewmates who served directly under Kerry backed his campaign. (In truth, all but one of them support Kerry’s campaign.)” (Kudos to St. Petersburg Times’ Adam Smith for the fact check.)

And Bush? Well, he alienated our allies while Kerry will bring them back to the fold — and will be less likely to go to war lightly, given his own war experience. So says the Kerry camp, reinforced by assorted speakers at the Democratic Convention.

And so also says Michael Moody of Las Vegas, Nevada: “I think Bush’s policies have alienated us from our allies and energized our enemies … We have to elect John Kerry to show the world that Americans all aren’t like Bush …”

Jim Patrick, who owns an auto shop in Bucyrus, Ohio, feels the same way. “If we did go to war we should have waited for help from other countries,” Patrick told CBS News.

As does “John Malcom, 57, who with his wife, Diane, owns Rivertown Fine Books in MacGregor, Iowa.” Malcom, the Rockford [Illinois] Register Star reports, “has a low opinion of ‘the current president’s eagerness to jump into war. The fact he snubbed the United Nations is outrageous to the point of absolute stupidity.’”

Further, according to the Los Angeles Times, Tom Horan, “a 58-year-old Vietnam veteran who drove 90 minutes to see Kerry at a Saturday night stop in Las Vegas, New Mexico “want[s] a president who’s been shot at. I think then he’d be less likely to send other men to war.”

As Jon Stewart has so pithily explained:

“Talking points. That’s how we learn things.”

Liz Cox Barrett

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Liz Cox Barrett is a writer at CJR.