O’Donnell on the dangers of politicians straying from their talking points


Politicians have long been criticized for using stale, pre-cooked talking points, but when you’re expected to have opinions on such a wide variety of subjects they can help tremendously. Talking points are carefully crafted by congressional staffers so that pols aren’t left blank-faced when a Hill reporter corners them in the hallways of the Capitol.

When dealing with a complex issue, however, like whether or not to launch a military strike against Syria, legislators can be tempted to expand on their talking points. As MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell, a former Senate staffer, said in his Rewrite segment Tuesday, “nothing terrifies congressional staffers more than their bosses going beyond the talking points.”

Staffers of Rep. Nancy Pelosi were likely “tearing their hair out,” O’Donnell said, when she told reporters Tuesday about how she consulted her five-year-old grandson on the Syria question.

“My five-year-old grandson, as I was leaving San Francisco yesterday, he said to me, ‘Mimi (that’s my name) Mimi–war with Syria. Are you yes war with Syria, no war with Syria?’ I said, ‘Well what do you think?’ He said, ‘I think no war!’ I said, ‘Well, I generally agree with that but you know they’ve killed hundreds of children there, they’ve killed hundreds of children.’ And he said (five years old), ‘Were these children in the United States? And I said, ‘Well, no–but they’re children wherever they are. So I don’t know what news he’s listening to, but…’”

Pelosi couldn’t really finish the point about her grandson. For O’Donnell, these unscripted remarks revealed that “this is an uncomfortable area for her–supporting military intervention,” especially after voting against the Iraq War a decade ago.

At the end of a three-and-a-half hour committee hearing on a possible intervention in Syria Monday, chairman Robert Menendez made similarly informal remarks. He told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about his experience with a childhood bully. Menendez’s mother told him to avoid the bully, he said, but the bully just escalated his attacks, so young Menendez “got a piece of wood and whacked the bully and that was the end of it.”

“It’s not quite this,” Menendez added. “But there’s a lesson to be learned.”

“No there isn’t,” said O’Donnell. “There is absolutely no foreign relations lesson to be learned by that neighborhood bully story…You wack a Bayonne bully with a piece of wood and chances are he’s going to go get a bigger piece of wood and he’s going to wack you again–and you’re going to go home crying to your mother, again.”

O'Donnell on the dangers of politicians straying from their talking points