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Candor in public discourse

IN a political year, particularly, the quality of the public discourse comes under scrutiny. Is anything actually being said out there on the campaign trail? Or are candidates and their ideas just being packaged like so many competing brands of laundry soap? So we appreciated the food for thought afforded at a recent conference at Washington University in St. Louis on ``Responsibility and Integrity in Public Discourse.''

Such responsibility and integrity should begin with our own words and actions - with striving for consonance between what we say or imply we are, and what we actually are.

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The process should continue with critical reading of and listening to those who would sway opinion - whether politicians or pundits. Those who complain about the television networks' ``instant analysis'' of what some public figure has said owe it to themselves to do their own analysis. The letters column of this newspaper shows daily how many people do just that.

But much more needs to be done. The government, as former State Department spokesman Hodding Carter reminds his interlocutors, is not in the truth business.

What used to be called slant is now called ``spin'' - and spin control is a growth industry in Washington. Defeat is transmogrified into victory by being recast as ``better than expected.'' The ``tax hikes'' beloved of headline writers become ``revenue enhancements'' in the mouths of circumloquacious politicians. Those on opposite sides of the abortion question seek the high ground by casting themselves as ``pro life'' or ``pro choice.'' Defense planners come up with a piece of bureaucratese like ``Strategic Defense Initiative,'' and then have hurt feelings when people start calling it ``star wars.''

Realities of public life dictate the use of speech writers, press secretaries, and briefing books rather than the extemporaneous eloquence we imagine to have been the norm in the era before the tape recorder. But even so, those who buy their words and ideas can buy ones that fit. If they buy off the rack and not custom-tailored, they should at least have the right alterations made.

Sen. Joseph Biden's presidential campaign came to grief over his lifting from a speech by British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock. Mr. Kinnock had spoken of his coal-mining kinfolk who would play football after a long day in the mines. When the senator appropriated Kinnock's text - and his relatives, too, evidently - he transplanted them from Wales to Pennsylvania. Listening to the senator's adaptation of Kinnock, one suspected that maybe he didn't know it's a different kind of football they play in Wales.

On the other side of this coin was President Reagan's address to the American people right after the Challenger explosion in January 1986. ``The speech writers must have really had to hustle on that one,'' we remember thinking - more in admiration than in cynicism. The words they gave him were a good fit. The Great Communicator has been a comforting presence at moments like these. They will count as achievements of his presidency - as well as good examples of the right kind of public discourse.

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