Friday, March 16, 2012

10 Words

The latest news out of the Netherlands is that the energetic 40-year-old Diederik Samsom has won the leadership election of the Labour party. And given that I've finally taken to using Twitter (see right-hand column), I was looking for something useful to tell him in my congratulations tweet. What I ended up writing sounded a bit harsh - that's what you get for being constrained to 140 characters. I asked him whether he was going to be a "tussenpaus", a Dutch word defined by Wiki-dictionary as
"an incumbent whose main function is not to exerce the office but to 'keep the seat warm' or prepare the way for a far more notable successor, but fully titled, without being formally styled 'ad interim'."
After all, it is widely expected that Lodewijk Asscher will take over the leadership of the Labour party in a few years, having decided that the time was not yet right for him to enter the fray this time. But I also managed to squeeze something positive into my 140 characters. If Samsom wants to avoid being a seat-filler, he should define "a mission" for his party.

Now, for sure, if you asked him, he could give you ten missions. But none of them would be the least bit appealing to anyone outside the Hague-beltway. The problem is that they are invariably too long, too filled with jargon and too unfocused. What I was looking for is best summed up in this story from The West Wing, which I've been re-watching in the last few weeks (jay!):
In the midst of the big debate, President Bartlet's opponent, Governor Robert Ritchie, played by James Brolin, was asked about his tax policy, to which he responded: "We need to cut taxes for one reason - the American people know how to spend their money better than the federal government does." President Bartlett's response was: "That's the ten word answer my staff's been looking for two weeks. There it is. Ten-word answers can kill you in political campaigns. They're the tip of the sword."
That's what Dutch politicians, including even the youthful Diederik Samsom, don't have: ten word answers.

Now, to be honest, the website that I lifted that summary from makes an entirely different point. There, the author emphasises Bartlet's reply, asking for "the next ten words" and argues for a political system that is not completely reduced to sound bites. But none of that matters unless you have politicians who are effective communicators. None of that matters unless you have politicians who are at least capable of defining what they stand for in 10 poignant words.

Pauw & Witteman is the only Dutch political talk show that matters. As a political junkie, I should be totally addicted to it. (At least while I'm in the Netherlands.) But I'm not. Why not? Because every time I watch it I can't help but yell at the TV in sheer frustration about the inability of Dutch politicians to speak effectively. That's not the same as speaking plainly, heavens forbid, but at least it means being able to answer any given question in 10 words, if you choose to.

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