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by Steve Young

Steve Young columns

Give them credit: Republicans may not be able to run an honest government or truthfully testify before Congress, but they sure as hell can hijack a debate.

Repubs can take anything -- an idea, a foe's reputation, even an opinion shared by most Americans -- and twist it into something loathesome by inventing a simplistic catchphrase that will gnaw away at voter's darkest fears.

If you believe in fighting terrorism but believe the Bush administration's "War on Terrorism" is a disaster, you're "soft on terror."

If you feel the failure in Iraq is a failure, you must be from the party of "cut and run."

If you present the facts from both sides of an issue, you're part of the "liberal media."

And you can always tell when the Republican Party believes something can hurt them. They attack it like you'd wish a Michael Vick pitbull would attack its owner.

By the second or third time it's uttered, catchphrase rhetoric becomes obvious. But there are times when they are more insidious, building momentum under the radar. Oh, you know it's an attack, but it comes in so many different shapes and sizes it's difficult to notice until they all meet at one place: the target.

And one big target in the Republican cross-hairs is John Edwards.

He's presently a third place longshot in the Democratic race, but there's strong evidence that the Republican Party may be more afeared of Edwards then they are of Obama or Clinton. They both may have bulls-eyes painted on them, but it is Edwards who has been under unrelenting assault.

It started with tagging Edwards as the "personal injury attorney." Next, the subtle, Coulter "Edwards is a fag" strategy. Bill O'Reilly deemed Edwards "out of the race" even though he polls higher than Mitt Romney, who O'Reilly believes is a keeper. It moved into the "$400 haircut," before finally settling on, "How can a man fight poverty when he lives in a 30,000 square foot house?"

But last week you knew it was no longer a disconnected series of attacks, but a full-fledged offensive when the Republican's Master of Maxims, the Sultan of Slogans,, King of Katchphrases, Frank Luntz -- father of "Death tax," "Contract for America," "Climate Change -- went on the Today Show to get on the "stop John Edwards train."

It was a bizarre segment with Meredith Viera setting up Luntz on politicians using humor (LINK). In every case, from John Kennedy and Ronald Reagan to Barack Obama, Rudy Guiliani and Hillary Clinton. Democrat or Republican, every single president and presidential candidate received a positive review from Luntz. Everyone but one: John Edwards.

When it came to Edwards, they played a clip of him on the Tonight Show where he quipped about his expensive haircut. It received a big laugh from the Leno audience. For some baffling reason, Viera asked Luntz, "Why didn't that work?" What? A huge laugh, but both Viera and Luntz somehow ignored what we had just seen and heard.

I've been in the business of comedy and satire -- stand-up and written -- for most of my career and I guess that I've been under the misconception that when you tell a joke and it gets a big laugh, people thought it was funny. In the comedy biz, we say, "it worked." But in the world of Luntz and the slamming of Edwards, it didn't.

As far as Viera buying that the Edwards joke didn't work, my guess is that she was given the question to ask, but didn't actually listen to the audience reaction. If she had, she would have found her question incredulous.

I imagine Viera and her producer were duped; that Luntz asked for Viera to use that clip to pose a negative about Edwards.

Luntz pointed out that "you can't discuss poverty with people when you get a $400 haircut." Luntz said that Edwards "shouldn't be making jokes about it. He should be apologizing."

This after he set up the segment with saying that for politicians to be funny "they must poke fun of themselves."

Why Viera didn't ask why Edwards can't discuss poverty when he gets an expensive haircut? Ring that one up to gross infotainment negligence.

Now I appreciate what Frank Luntz does -- in a sports-annish kind of way. The same way I felt about Larry Bird as a Philadelphia 76er fan. I hated his guts, but wouldn't mind at all to have him on my team.

But even so, when Luntz starts nipping at your heels, you know what the intent is -- and don't be surprized if Karl Rove is behind the stop Edwards effort.

"John Edwards...Personal Injury Attorney"

"John Edwards...Poverty Hypocrite"

"John Edwards...Not Funny"

You can understand Luntz's motive.

Why the Today Show decided to help with its in-depth analysis of political funny?

That's a question for the comedy gods.

Award-winning TV writer and author of "Great Failures of the Extremely Successful," Steve Young, was political editor of National Lampoon and is now writing "Satire: Political Secret Weapon." (

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Albion Monitor   August 2, 2007   (

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