A habit of conversation conducted as a form of Twenty Questions is becoming a fad in Washington. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is probably the most famous user of the Twenty Questions style of talking.

You've probably heard him say something like: "Do we know where Bin Laden is? No. Are we searching for him? Yes. Will we eventually find him? You bet. But do I wake up every morning worrying about where Bin Laden may or may not be? No."

Maybe all Americans should adopt this habit. Imagine going to a restaurant, and the waitress says, "What'll you have?"

And you reply: "Do I want fried chicken? No. Do I like fried fish? No. Would I prefer to have a plain steak and baked potato? You bet."

Then the waitress says, "And what would you like to drink?"

You reply: "Should I drink coffee this late in the day? No. Does Coke have a lot of caffeine in it, too? Yes. Would I prefer just a plain glass of water? I think so."

And the waitress would say: "When I return with your order, will I dump it on your head? Wait and see."

I much prefer the old-fashioned way of direct speech, such as, "We don't know where Bin Laden is, but we'll find him eventually, and in the meantime, I have more important things to think about."

The Twenty Questions style seems patronizing to me, as if the person believes his audience is so ignorant that everything has to be explained to them in kindergarten language. Rumsfeld is by no means the only political figure to use this technique, but behind his facade of affability and humor, he is an arrogant man. It does no credit to the Washington press corps members that they like Rumsfeld just because he knows how to refuse to answer their questions and to make them laugh at the same time.

Years ago, I covered a politician who had a different style of dealing with questions. Suppose I asked him a simple question: "Are you going to vote for or against the road bill?" This guy, who was earnest sincerity personified, would begin with the history of road building just before the Roman Empire, carry you forward to the 19th century, then start to talk about Indian trails and early road-building efforts in the North American wilderness. Finally, he would arrive at the 20th century, after which he discussed previously passed laws about road building, carefully dissecting each law into pros and cons. By this time, your eyes had glazed over, and you were trying not to topple over, fall on the floor and snore. You dreaded asking him another question, and before you could regain full consciousness, he was gone. It usually took a few minutes to figure out he had never answered the question.

We need to pay more attention to language, how our leaders use it, how journalists use it, and how we use it. Human civilization literally rests on three pillars — the ability to communicate, knowledge, and the ethic of telling the truth. If even one of those pillars rots, then the civilization will collapse. Most empires die of their own corruption. Ours is not exactly what any careful observer would call in perfect health.

I cannot think, for example, what a politician could do that would cause his constituents to vote him out of office, short of child murder. Lying and cheating and thinking nothing of it seems to be on the increase. Simple good manners seem to be vanishing.

Hasn't America always produced great leaders to get us out of the soup? No. Can people lower their own standards so much that they can't recognize greatness? Yes. Will they lose the ability to recognize even mediocrity? You bet. Where do people led by mediocrity end up? On the trash heap of history.


Should We Talk Like This?
By Charley Reese

Posted on the Independent Newswire on 11 April 2002 Ref: www.indymedia.org/front.php3?article_id=169290&group=webcast

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