How to Talk Politics

How to engage in spirited debate without the fisticuffs.

Sally Quinn, D.C. socialite, wife of legendary Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, and co-moderator of the blog "On Faith," has spent a lifetime making merry in political minefields. At 17, she was goosed by Strom Thurmond at a party; later, she got Henry Kissinger to say he was a "secret swinger." The ultimate D.C. hostess, Quinn has pulled stunts like seating Donald Rumsfeld's wife next to ultra-lefty Hollywood producer Norman Lear — and been thanked for the pleasure. Who better to ask how to quickly disarm the polemicist trying to push your buttons?

Scenario: Your boyfriend's amateur-economist dad calls you ignorant for saying higher taxes are good for the country.

"Ask questions. 'Why do you think that?' That way you learn something. If you think what he's saying is really dumb — or really interesting — open it up to the table. Say, 'What does everybody else think?'"

Scenario: You're a closet liberal at work, and your red-blooded boss says, "Of course you're going to vote for McCain..."

"Say, 'I find a lot of things about McCain very appealing.' Then name the things that are appealing: He's a war hero, and he wouldn't let his captors release him unless they freed fellow POWs. Then say, 'I do worry about his age and his health.' In other words, don't say, 'I hate him,' but say the things that 'concern' you."

Scenario: You're cornered at a party by your roommate's cousin, who angrily blurts out that 9/11 was the direct result of America's foreign policy.

"When it gets emotional, it's hard to have a discussion. Ask them for some examples. Then say, 'You're president now. How would you change our foreign policy?' No one has the right answer."

Scenario: At dinner with conservative in-laws, you mention that you marched against the war, and the room goes silent.

"I wouldn't bring it up. But if it does come up, change the subject. Sports, sex, and dysfunctional families are good alternatives."

Scenario: At a wedding, an in-law says he could never vote for a black man.

"Don't play. You can't have an intelligent, rational conversation with anybody who would think that. Just say, 'Excuse me, I have to visit the ladies' room.'"

Scenario: Your cousin announces to the table that you voted for Nader in 2000.

"Repeat after me: 'I was kidnapped by aliens and brainwashed.'"