June 13, 2016

A buzzword with a dual political meaning: A comprehensive change in campaign strategy, as well as the practice of ducking uncomfortable issues or questions by emphasizing something favorable.

We are in prime pivot season. Just look at the latest avalanche of articles about Donald Trump. The Wall Street Journal: “On Capitol Hill, Republicans Watch for Donald Trump’s ‘Pivot.’’ And the Washington Examiner: “Trump Begins Pivot to November, Bashes Clinton, Warren.” Plus the Huffington Post: “No, Donald Trump Can’t ‘Pivot’ Away from Racism.”

Hillary Clinton is pivoting, too. Her sudden availability to the press, after months of avoiding reporters, led the Washington Post to wonder: “Hillary Clinton’s Media Pivot?” And the persistent controversy involving her use of a private email server as secretary of State led to this from Politico: “Emails block Clinton pivot to positive.”

Why is it so ubiquitous? Brad Phillips, a former journalist who is now a media coach and observes politicians’ communications skills on his Mr. Media Training blog, said it reflects journalists’ growing usurpation of the lingo of political and media advisers.

“When I started Phillips Media Relations in 2004, not nearly as many ‘straight’ reporters were analyzing politicians through the prism of media training,” Phillips said. “My articles at that time had a unique angle—they assessed, with some specificity, the communications style of public figures rather than overarching political strategies. Fast forward a decade, it seems almost every blogger, pundit, reporter and tweeter sees the world as a media trainer does. They now speak a shared language, with terms such as ‘pivoting’ and ‘bridging’ and ‘optics’ and ‘gaffes’ pervading a surprising number of their stories.”

That’s irksome to NPR’s Scott Simon, who complained in a commentary last weekend that pivot “has become part of the special vocabulary of this campaign” and is not as clear in meaning as it could be.

“Saying ‘pivot’ instead of ‘change’ may not be wrong,” Simon said. “But the hundredth time you've heard it bounce off the echo chamber of pundits and analysts, it begins to smack of smug insider-ness. Imagine if Muhammad Ali, the masterful communicator who was laid to rest yesterday, had made his motto, ‘Pivot like a butterfly, sting like a bee!’’’

Its popularity also may spring from the fact that politicians themselves are invoking the word more often. Its use in House and Senate floor debates has spiked over the past decade, according to the Sunlight Foundation’s invaluable Capitol Words website. The word’s most frequent user -- Kentucky’s Mitch McConnell (R), the Senate majority leader. (The overall use of “pivot” has been fairly consistent over the last century, according to Google’s Ngram Viewer.)

At the same time, the Obama administration has relied on “pivot” whenever it has sought to concentrate on addressing unemployment or other issues instead of whatever real or perceived scandal has been in the news.

“It feels like every couple of months I am reporting that the White House is announcing that they are pivoting to a jobs agenda, and something else happens,” observed Jake Tapper, then a White House correspondent for ABC News, in 2011.

Geoffrey Nunberg, a University of California-Berkeley linguist and author of several books on language, said that in politics, as in basketball, successful pivoting has to be done with some subtlety.

“In both basketball and politics, the important thing is to keep one foot fixed while moving the other,” Nunberg said. “If you don’t, it’s traveling, which is viewed disapprovingly by both the refs and the public -- though in the latter case it goes by the name of flip-flopping.”

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