Viewpoint: “State of the Union Guide”

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    By Jens Dana

    A friend once told me, “Sincerity is the most important part of a relationship, and if you can fake that you”ve got it made.” Rather than cast him as a total cynic, I”d prefer to think he referred only to the realm of politics, where some coerced courtesy is plumb necessary to survive.

    Political interaction is an interesting ceremony to behold; much more entertaining than anything you”ll see on the Discovery Channel. These social rituals demand a high degree of subtlety and, above all else, deference to “tact talk.” Unlike animals, humans control their impulses; they aren”t controlled by them. Senator A would love to call Senator B a decadent, fetid pile of spittle, but instead he represses his natural impulse and opts to word his feelings in more diplomatic terms.

    Believe it or not, the white-collar crowd in D.C. doesn”t consider this disingenuous or deceptive because all the players know the rules of the game. Senator B knows Senator A isn”t saying exactly what he”d really like to because Senator B has found himself in similar situations many times before. They all understand the dynamics and that a little self control doesn”t hurt in an environment where tempers can flare easily. Often, when regular people like you and I watch politicians in action, we think they”re being insincere or two-faced. But to them, it”s called “tact,” and sometimes it”s the only way the two major parties can peacefully co-exist temporarily along the same point in the space-time continuum. In fact, tact talk is what helped both parties make it through the State of the Union address.

    Perceiving what the person really wants to say is never easy; you need an understanding of the context of the situation to effectively translate the conveyed message. Even then, it”s practically impossible to ascertain the exact wording a person would like to use, but it”s generally easy to derive the gist of their message. Consider the following exercises in translating tact talk.

    Nancy Pelosi: “It is my pleasure to introduce the President of the United States of America.”

    [“I got the proof of purchase right here if anyone wants to see it, cuz we own him now!”]

    President Bush: “Tonight, I have a high privilege and distinct honor of my own – as the first President to begin the State of the Union message with these words: Madam Speaker.”

    [“I have to be nice to her cuz she”s sitting behind me, and I”m worried she might have a gavel.”]

    Democratic party members: CLAP! CLAP! CLAP!

    [“The President”s lips are still moving, let”s drown him out.”]

    Republican party members: CLAP! CLAP! CLAP!

    [“We may be the minority now, but we can still make some noise.”]

    “I respect you and the arguments you have made.”

    [“You guys whine too much.”]

    Equally important to understanding tact talk is realizing when it”s employed and when it isn”t. Usually, tact talk is reserved for ceremonies or whenever there are high numbers of civilians watching. Under these circumstances, politicians momentarily disregard their rivals” stance on pet issues to smile, pat each other on the back and say nice things to each other – even though each knows exactly what the other would really like to say.

    Once the pomp and ceremony is over, and as soon as everyone gets a safe, respectable distance from everyone else, they”re at liberty to resume their normal carping habits. Which is we didn”t need to translate a lot of Democratic tact talk. While President Bush stands at the podium to say what he knows he should – as opposed to what he really wanted to say – the Democrats got to say exactly what they wanted as soon as the State of Union Address concluded.

    Jens Dana is the issues and ideas editor for The Daily Universe.

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