Noonan: A Remedial Communication Class
Lessons from three recent failures, at the Olympics and on the campaign trail.
By PEGGY NOONAN
Thoughts on three recent failures to communicate:
In the controversy surrounding the uniforms of the 2012 U.S. Olympic team, the problem isn't China. That the uniforms were made there is merely a deep embarrassment and a missed opportunity. Our textile and manufacturing companies deserved that work. You wonder how it could be that no one in the American Olympic Committee or in Ralph Lauren's company asked, "By the way, we're making the outfits in America, right?"
And—here's part of the missed opportunity—on being told yes, someone might have thought: "Hey, we could do a nice commercial to run during the games, with American women and men making the uniforms, looking up from their sewing machines as the camera goes by and saying, 'Good luck America.' The last shot is of a seamstress at the end of the day on a floor in the New York Garment District. As she goes to turn off the lights, she walks by a mannequin wearing the full uniform, gives the shoulder a little pat and says, 'Good luck, kid.'" As if we're all in this together, and what we're all in is actually bigger than the games.
But that isn't the biggest problem. That would be the uniforms themselves. They don't really look all that American. Have you seen them? Do they say "America" to you? Berets with little stripes? Double breasted tuxedo-like jackets with white pants? Funny rounded collars on the shirts? Huge Polo logos? They look like some European bureaucrat's idea of a secret militia, like Brussels's idea of a chic new army. They're like the international community Steven Spielberg lined up to put on the spaceship at the end of "Close Encounters of the Third Kind."
Americans wear baseball caps, trucker hats, cowboy hats, watch caps, Stetsons, golf caps, even Panama hats and fedoras. They wear jeans and suits and khakis and shorts and workout clothes. The Americans in the now-famous uniform picture look like something out of a Vogue spread where the models arrayed on the yacht look like perfect representatives of the new global elite.
Our athletes aren't supposed to look like people who'd march under a flag with statues and harps and musical notes. Also, the women's uniforms make them look like stewardesses from the 777 fleet on Singapore Airlines.
The failure of the uniforms is that they don't communicate: "Here comes America."
They communicate: "Chic global Martians coming your way."
The reason Mitt Romney isn't releasing more tax returns can be reduced to three words: Bill Clinton's underwear. When he first ran for president, Bill Clinton put out his tax returns. Lisa Schiffren, an enterprising young writer for The American Spectator, went through them and found that the Clintons, when they were in Little Rock, had gone to great lengths to limit their tax bills, to the point of itemizing each contribution to local charities, including Mr. Clinton's old underwear. Hilarity ensued. This is the kind of thing everyone in national politics fears.
But the question remains. Mr. Romney has known at least since 2007 that he would be running for president. He never in that time made sure his taxes from that date would pass rigorous public examination? This is odd, especially since he's supposed to be so methodical, tidy, organized and prudent. The political answer to the question "Should Romney reveal more tax returns?" is, "That depends on what's in them." But the nonpolitical answer is yes, he should.
The failure of communication here involves failing to arm proactively against the problem, and reacting flat-footedly when it arrived.
The president stepped in it this week with his own failure to communicate.
Mr. Obama, at a campaign appearance at a fire house in Roanoke, Va.: "Look, if you've been successful, you didn't get there on your own." If you own a store or factory "somebody invested in roads and bridges," somebody built the infrastructure that allows for commerce. Fair enough. We all built it, with public moneys for public benefit. But it makes as much sense to tell the wealthy businessman, "Feel guilty because the taxes of the poor built that highway," as it does to tell a mother on public assistance, "Feel guilty because your hardworking neighbors built that road."
How about nobody feel guilty?
The president seemed to me to be confusing a poor argument—he implied we owe our wealth and growth as a nation to government programs—with a good one, that nobody achieves success alone. This is true: Nobody proceeds unhelped through life, everyone who's achieved something got some encouragement from a neighbor or a teacher or a coach.
But Mr. Obama makes this point mischievously. He aims his argument at his political opponents—Republicans, Romney supporters. Yet many of them—most, probably—are involved one way or another with churches, synagogues, civic groups and professional organizations whose sole purpose is to provide assistance and encouragement to those who are ignored and disadvantaged. Conservatism doesn't mean "do it alone." God made us as social animals and asks us to help each other.
Mr. Obama was trying to conflate a nice thought—we must help each other—with a partisan and ideological one, that government has and needs more of a role in creating personal success. He did not do it well because his approach was, as it often is, accusatory and vaguely manipulative. Which makes people lean away from him, not toward him.
It is odd he does not notice this, because communicating is his obsession. He made this clear again in his interview last week with Charlie Rose. "The mistake of my first couple of years was thinking that this job was just about getting the policy right," he said. "But, you know, the nature of this office is also to tell a story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity and purpose and optimism."
I am certain the president has no idea how patronizing he sounds. His job is to tell us a story? And then get our blankie and put us to sleep?
When he says "a story" he means "the narrative," but he can't use that term because every hack in politics and every journalist they spin uses it and believes in it.
We've written of this before but it needs repeating. The American people will not listen to a narrative, they will not sit still for a story. They do not listen passively as seemingly eloquent people in Washington spin tales of their own derring-do.
The American people tell you the narrative. They look at the facts produced by your leadership, make a judgment and sum it up. The summation is spoken—the story told—at a million barbecues in a million back yards.
The narrative on the president right now is: He's not a bad guy, but it hasn't worked.
Some people will vote for him anyway, some won't. But all, actually, know it hasn't worked. That's the narrative.
To get that wrong—that the American summation comes from the bottom up and not the top down—is a big mistake. It means you don't know you've got to change some facts, as opposed to some words.