Legacy Replaces Toxic In Treasury Jargon

The Treasury Department has rolled out details of the Legacy Securities Program. It's a federal plan to dispose of toxic financial assets. The government is trying to get away from the word toxic. After all, who would want to buy toxic assets? Legacy assets sound more investor-friendly.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Whatever party politicians may be in, you sometimes need a dictionary just to figure out what they're saying. Yesterday, for example, the Treasury Department rolled out the details of something called the Legacy Securities Program. If you're wondering what that means, NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson offers an explanation.

MARA LIASSON: Legacy securities is a new Washington buzz word. When the country first found itself in a financial meltdown, people used a different description for all those bad loans poisoning the banks' balance sheets.

Unidentified Man: And unless those institutions clear their books of those toxic assets…

LIASSON: Toxic assets sounded clear enough. Maybe too clear for Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, who offered this revision.

Secretary TIM GEITHNER (Department of Treasury): We've put in place funds and facilities to help provide a market for those legacy assets.

LIASSON: Legacy assets. That sounds so much nicer than toxic assets. It's the difference between dark polished wood and something stinky and noxious. And that's the point, says Republican pollster Frank Luntz, who makes his living advising politicians about what words work best.

Mr. FRANK LUNTZ (Pollster): Who would invest in a toxic asset? Who would buy a home near a toxic waste dump? But a legacy asset, heck, that's something I'd put in my portfolio.

LIASSON: Here's another example of laundered language. When President Obama talks about all the powerful players working against his agenda, he says this…

President BARACK OBAMA: I know these steps won't sit well with the special interests and lobbyists…

LIASSON: But when the president wants those powerful players to help him pass his agenda, he calls them something else.

President OBAMA: Members of the energy and commerce committee brought together stakeholders from all corners of the country.

LIASSON: Who wouldn't rather be a stakeholder than a special interest? And that's particularly true in the increasingly difficult debate about health care, where there are a lot of special interests - excuse me, stakeholders -that the White House is trying to keep at the table working towards a final deal.

The health care debate has generated a lot of unfamiliar jargon. Listen to this exchange about how to make sure everyone gets coverage.

Unidentified Man #1: There will be an individual mandate to purchase coverage.

Senator MAX BAUCUS (Democrat, Montana): There will be a shared responsibility, that is that all Americans will have an obligation to have insurance of some kind or another.

LIASSON: By using the words shared responsibility, Senator Max Baucas is onto something, says Frank Luntz(ph).

Mr. FRANK LUNTZ: An individual mandate says, you have to do it and you have no choice, and of course the public is going to say no to that. Shared responsibility is something that we all embrace because we're all in this together, particularly with an issue like health care. If that language seems mandatory, it will definitely turn people off.

LIASSON: Even if the shared responsibility turns out to be just as mandatory as a mandate. National security is another area chalk full of Washington buzzwords that are designed to obfuscate rather than communicate. In March, the president's budget office wrote a memo to the Pentagon advising it to avoid the term war on terror. It came up with a substitute, which might have drawn a full blank looks when used by Budget Director Peter Orszag.

Mr. PETER ORSZAG (Economist, Director of the Office of Management and Budget): The budget shows the combined cost of operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and any other overseas contingency operations, a $50 billion place holder for overseas contingency operations. Those overseas contingency operations.

LIASSON: Writer Joe Queenan thinks political euphemisms like overseas contingency operations are Orwellian and they drive him crazy.

Mr. JOE QUEENAN (Humorist, Critic and Author): War on terror is very, very specific. Everybody knows exactly what it means. Overseas contingency operations, which is what is the official designation now is just stupid. Well, what if the Taliban started doing this and instead of calling a beheading a beheading, they would call it a cephalic attrition?

LIASSON: Queenan thinks leaching political language of its most powerful terms, axis of evil, war on terror, fits right in with President Obama's non-polarizing inclusive leadership style.

Mr. QUEENAN: It doesn't make you mad. Because for example, terms like right to life or death tax, those terms make peoples blood boil, whereas when he says, stakeholders or shared responsibility, nobody even knows what he's talking about. It's hard to get angry about it. He does use those sort of fancy vaporous expressions and I think that goes well with his personality. And it's kind of hard to pin this guy down on anything.

LIASSON: Actually, that's not always true. There is one topic where the president has drawn a clear line in the sand using sharp provocative language.

President BARACK OBAMA: I can stand here today as president of the United States and say without exception or equivocation that we do not torture.

LIASSON: Within minutes of that speech, however, the president got a response from his chief antagonist, former Vice President Dick Cheney, who used very different words to talk about the same thing.

Vice President DICK CHENEY: Those are the basic facts on enhanced interrogation. To call this a program of torture is to liable the dedicated professionals.

LIASSON: It turns out that particular debate is about policy and also about language. Mara Liasson, NPR News, Washington.

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