Financial plans — words do matter

Gee, I guess when it comes to financial bailout — oops, I mean rescue — plans words do matter. And I don’t just mean when you look at your 401k or other savings statements and say, “Holy shit!”

Brian Stelter wrote about that yesterday in The New York Times, “President Bush Calls It a Rescue, but Others Are Sticking With Bailout.”

The government’s purchase of troubled assets may amount to a $700 billion bailout of financial institutions. But “bailout” is a word President Bush did not utter last week.

In a stark example of the way language is used as a public relations tactic, Mr. Bush and other government officials have characterized the measure in positive terms — “rescue plan” and “asset relief program” — thereby carefully avoiding more loaded words like “bailout.”

The media, by and large, did not follow Mr. Bush’s lead. On Sunday, a Google News search conjured more than 157,000 results for “bailout,” and only 42,000 for “rescue plan.” Sunday’s newspaper headlines reflected the preferred descriptive, from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (“Tentative Bailout Deal Reached”) to The Richmond Times-Dispatch (“Bailout: Deal or No Deal?”) to The Wichita Eagle (“Americans Frustrated by Bailout”).

The terminology of the financial crisis is particularly important because of the emotions the words can stir in readers and listeners. The Hill, a Capitol Hill newspaper, suggested that the bailout label was a “major reason why constituents flooded Capitol Hill offices with phone calls and e-mails, overwhelmingly urging lawmakers to reject it.”

Then there is the story, confirmed in a Washington Post editorial today “Congressional Neroes: Republicans and Democrats fiddle as the economy burns,” that many House Republicans reacted so negatively to remarks by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that they voted against the bailout/rescue plan.

It was quite a spectacle. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi delivered a bitter floor speech in which she expressed astonishment at the bill’s price tag even as she weakly urged its adoption, and in which she blamed the entire situation on President Bush and the Republicans even as she was depending on Republican votes. Rather than stifling their own reactive impulses, a dozen or so wavering Republicans, according to Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), used Ms. Pelosi’s speech as an excuse to vote no, simultaneously scapegoating Ms. Pelosi and taking revenge on her — at the country’s expense. Democrats, in turn, denounced the Republican leadership’s failure to discipline its troops. And then Congress marched out to a scheduled recess, with no clear plan for taking the bill up again.

And speaking of spectacles, W. is scheduled to talk to the nation today about the rescue plan/bailout. Here’s a case where words mean nothing at all. With no credibility and trust, the Prez can huff and puff but he can’t even blow the Republican House members down. Better that he stay focused on the baseball playoffs.

On NPR this morning a commentator said Congress will now take a few days to consider a bailout (not rescue) plan and to assess blame. They are good at that — and talking to themselves.


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