I Hear America Talking

(By Frank Herholdt --
By Dana Milbank
Sunday, October 7, 2007

It's time to have a national debate about all these national conversations and national discussions we've been having.

"I'm going to start this campaign with a national conversation," Hillary Rodham Clinton announced in her "I'm in to win" Democratic presidential campaign kickoff earlier this year. "Sign up to join the conversation here," she proposed on her Web site. "I need you to be a part of this campaign, and I hope you'll start by joining me in this national conversation."

Since then, the nation has had enough conversations, debates and discussions to make itself hoarse.

"It's no secret," State Department spokesman Sean McCormack confided at a briefing this summer, "that we're engaged in a national discussion, national debate, about Iraq."

On the "Today" show, Meredith Vieira informed Elizabeth Edwards that by disclosing her cancer recurrence, she had "actually set off a national debate, whether you intended to or not."

But Edwards's husband, Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards, was busy having a "national conversation" about race. "We should jump at the chance to have this conversation," he argued.

Not to be outdone, Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani agreed to speak to the Latino Coalition, which organizers said would "help open up a serious national discussion."

Another prospective candidate, Newt Gingrich, decided not to run, probably because he's having so many national discussions. He has called for a "national debate" on terrorism, a "fundamental national conversation" about health care, a "national conversation" about the Iraqi government and a "national debate" about the consequences of losing the Iraq war. Gingrich, Congressional Quarterly noted, "misses few opportunities to join the national debate."

It is perhaps a measure of our listless times that the nation has seemingly been transformed into a moot court. "We're engaged in a national discussion" just doesn't have the power or purpose of Abraham Lincoln's "Now we are engaged in a great civil war." But in an age of talk radio, TV talk shows and talk therapy, it stands to reason that our politicians should try to get in on the game, too.

In the 1990s, President Bill Clinton started what he called a "national conversation on race." The former president recently spoke at the Democratic Leadership Council's 11th annual "National Conversation."

Meanwhile, former Clinton understudy Al Gore, returning to the political scene after his loss in 2000, said it was time to "rejoin the national debate." And the man who beat Gore, President Bush, has announced "serious national conversations" aimed at "ending our dependence on foreign oil, reforming our immigration system, rebuilding the Gulf Coast and keeping our country safe from terrorism."

It seems that anybody is free to declare a national debate.

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