Roll Call: Latest News on Capitol Hill, Congress, Politics and Elections
December 28, 2014

Linguistics Prof Weighs In on Congress, Prez

Over the past couple of weeks, President Barack Obama and members of Congress have gone out of their way to show that they are engaged in conversations about the future direction of the country.

Indeed, Obama’s “charm offensive” has raised eyebrows all over Washington. So what does one of the world’s foremost experts on conversation, who happens to teach at Georgetown University, think of all this talk?

“They really are not trying to govern. They see the opposition party as the enemy and look for every opportunity to destroy it,” said Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown and the author of best-selling books such as “That’s Not What I Meant!: How Conversational Style Makes or Breaks Relationships” and “The Argument Culture: Stopping America’s War of Words.”

Reacting to lawmakers who live-tweeted their closed-door lunches with Obama — including Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz., and Sen. David Vitter, R-La., among others — Tannen sees such in-the-moment behavior as “revolutionary on a number of levels.”

“It’s an extension of the 24-hour news cycle, rising to a new level,” she said.

Her book “The Argument Culture” came out in early 1999, and she told HOH that when she was writing it, she was hurrying to finish, concerned that the increasingly toxic political and social communications culture would pass and make the book irrelevant. No worries there.

“It was nothing compared to what we have now,” she said, saying the “war-like stance” of people in the public arena has gotten much worse.

Returning to the subject of members live-tweeting their time with the president, Tannen seemed a bit amused and related an anecdote about a woman at a therapist appointment who held up her phone to say, “My mother doesn’t like what you said.”

Regardless of who likes it, the talking will apparently continue. When reporters asked White House Press Secretary Jay Carney on Monday whether the charm offensive had ended after last week’s presidential visits to Capitol Hill, Carney said, “Absolutely not.” That elicited some serious laughter from the press corps.

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