Frank Luntz – RTÉ's celebrity pollster

Time magazine named Frank Luntz among “50 of America's most promising leaders”. The Boston Globe said he was “the hottest pollster” in the US and he won the Washington Post's Crystal Ball award for being the most accurate pundit in the 1992 election. He has been fêted as a political heavyweight on Meet the Press, The Today Show and Good Morning America. He has conducted his famous focus groups for Newsweek and the Wall Street Journal and, in his spare time, has acted as a consultant to the TV soap The West Wing.

Other Americans, however, are starting to wise up to the oxymoronic high-profile hidden persuader. Luntz, 44, has an Oxford doctorate in politics and a handsome bank balance. His clients have included General Motors, Disney, Pfizer and McDonalds but, most famously, the Republican Party, which he has coached in the art of “convincing sincerity”. His growing chorus of critics in the US accuses him of obscuring the truth rather than telling it.

Luntz was the political propagandist who extracted George Bush from the Kyoto consensus on saving the environment by advising the president to keep repeating, throughout the 2000 and 2004 elections, that there was no scientific agreement about global warming. (Earlier this year, he finally conceded he was wrong, though Bush keeps on dissembling, oblivious of his guru's conversion.)

By manipulating the language of political discourse, Luntz largely credits himself with the Republicans' success. It was he who wrote Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich's seminal “Contract with America” speech in 1994. He also explosively deployed the phrase “partial birth abortion” for a second trimester termination to crush the liberals' argument in the latest abortion debate.

Until he came along, he boasts, “Democrats sounded like social workers and Republicans were awful because they sounded like morticians. In some cases, they actually dressed like morticians.” Having a superior policy (as he believes the Republicans do) is not enough, in Luntz's book. “You must be able to communicate on a personal level, rather than a philosophical or ideological level,” he instructs.

“Spin” is his bible. He produces an annual memo for Republicans containing phrases to be used in debate. His three fundamental tenets are: convince the audience you are sincere; talk about “common sense” policy; and emphasise shared rights and beliefs, ie “We all want to move towards a healthier, safer future.”

His appreciation of human intelligence knows no depths. “We decide based on how people look,” he preaches. “We decide based on how people sound. We decide based on how people are dressed.” On another occasion, he declared: “What matters most in politics is personality.”

Luntz's gospel is encapsulated in his belief that: “A compelling story, even if factually inaccurate, can be more emotionally compelling than a dry recitation of the truth.”

Justine McCarthy