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Verbal Impact

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Someday I may write a book about the 100 most repeated mistakes in politics. Without question, one will be comparing any person, place, thing, action, or circumstance to the Holocaust, Nazi Germany, the Gestapo, or Nazi concentration camps.

At least once a year, a politician or group gets into hot water for making such a comparison. Although he apologized this week, no doubt Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., would give anything to have used a metaphor different from the one he recently used to describe conditions and activities at the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. And no doubt someone else will have repeated the same mistake by this time next year.

As injudicious as Durbin's remarks were, however, the thought that he was trying to convey was correct. The characterization of torture and mistreatment of prisoners in the FBI agent's report that Durbin was referring to--along with many other reports from Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib prison--is certainly contrary to American ideals. The actions of a very few military personnel, including their supervising officers and civilians overseeing such operations, are unworthy of the men and women who are fighting so bravely in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But if some nostalgic, Norman Rockwell picture of what America does, and should, stand for isn't enough, consider the Golden Rule for prisoners of war. We should treat our prisoners in a manner consistent with how we want and expect our own military servicemen and -women, if captured, to be treated. The fact is, if we mistreat the prisoners in our custody, we effectively give a green light to our adversaries, now and in the future, to treat imprisoned Americans in precisely the same way.

The Geneva Conventions are a two-way street; that's why we signed them and should obey them. Using legal niceties -- that the captives are not technically prisoners of war as an explanation for how we treat them -- is not going to help future imprisoned Americans. Given the number of civilian contractors, journalists, and Americans working for nongovernmental organizations in that part of the world, the distinction is one that we may not want to make.

Durbin has learned an important lesson: Language matters in politics. The validity of the point he was trying to make was completely obfuscated by his over-the-top rhetoric. Republicans are now turning their fire on House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., for allegedly dishonoring our troops by describing the war in Iraq as a "grotesque mistake." The simple fact is that in her floor statement, Pelosi specifically paid tribute to the troops for "their valor, for their patriotism, and for the sacrifices they are willing to make," and said, "Disagreement with the policies that sent our troops to Iraq, and which keep them in danger today, in no way diminishes the respect and admiration which we have for our troops."

Now, while it is true that Pelosi's criticism was of the decision to go to war, and the condemnation of her was taken out of the broader context of praise for the troops, the bottom line is that politicians, particularly party leaders, should expect to have their statements taken out of context, even when all the appropriate disclaimers are made.

Then there is Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, who has landed in the frying pan himself by suggesting that Republicans had "never made an honest living," another example of the Democrats' rhetoric overshadowing the substance of their attacks.

Polls show rather vividly that Republicans have had a lousy year so far; they have taken so many hits they must be beginning to believe they are the Grand Old Pinata party. It's easy to understand why they are quick to seize on Democrats' missteps in order to shift the focus and anger away from themselves. Republicans are much more disciplined in this regard than are Democrats. But Democrats are contributing in kind to the Republican Party when they make injudicious statements or structure their statements in ways that leave themselves open to attack.

Certainly, GOP pollster Frank Luntz's numbers have their critics, but the important contribution that he has made to the Republican Party is explaining that there are right and wrong ways to word things, and that words matter. Democrats would do well to think about such advice as they decide what to say in the future.

 
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