People campaign for the presidency by talking their heads off. By the time the winner reaches the White House, the habit is so ingrained that it is impossible to shake.
The result has been what professor Jeffrey Tulis of the University of Texas 21 years ago labeled “the rhetorical presidency,” his term for an office in which the principal goal is to mobilize public opinion successfully enough to dominate the dealings with Congress and even foreign powers. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton were, for most of their tenures, masters of the art. George W. Bush had early success, but now has lost most of his audience and, with it, his sway.
Decline in content
Now, another scholar, Elvin T. Lim of Wesleyan University, has offered a revision of the Tulis theory that sheds fascinating and disturbing light on the torrent of communications that are unleashed by the “communicator in chief.” In a slim book titled “The Anti-Intellectual Presidency,”' he argues that the real problem is not the increased quantity of words coming out of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. but the sharp decline in content – especially of logical argument.
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Peggy Noonan, the former Reagan speechwriter who was one of 42 such people interviewed by Lim, said the result of this decline is that “the only organ to which no appeal is made these days – you might call it America's only understimulated organ – is the brain.”
Complaints about vacuous official rhetoric and the “dumbing-down” of presidential speeches, news conferences and interviews are standard fare. Lim found strong evidence to support those complaints, not just in his interviews with the retired speechwriters, but in the presidential texts themselves.
In what must have been a heroic effort, he applied standard techniques of content analysis to state papers of every president from Washington to the second Bush. His tool is something called the Flesch Readability score – a measure of the average number of words per sentence and the average number of syllables per word. The higher the Flesch score, the simpler to get the meaning.
Simple and risky
Applied to the annual State of the Union addresses, the average score has doubled from the first few presidents to the last few. Those “messages were pitched at a college level through most of the 18th and 19th centuries,” Lim says. “They have now come down to an eighth-grade reading level.” The same trend, but more pronounced, is found in Inaugural addresses. Their average sentence length has dropped from 60 words to 20.
Simplification has its advantages, if it serves to increase public comprehension. But it comes with a huge risk: the complexity of real-world choices can be, and often is, lost.
I remember my shock 50 years ago when I came to Washington from Bloomington, Ill., where I had been hearing a lot about the debate over federal aid to education. When I got here, I learned for the first time that the federal government had been subsidizing education for a century. The real debate was: How much subsidy, distributed how, and under what regulations? All of that substance was missing in the speeches I had heard in Bloomington; much the same thing is happening now, when it comes to No Child Left Behind.
Policy talk vanishes
But the problem Lim sees is more than dumbing down. “As presidents have taken the rhetorical path of least resistance by serving up simplistic sentences to citizens, they have correspondingly offered an easily digestible substantive menu devoid of argument and infused with inspirational platitudes, partisan punch lines and emotional and human-interest appeals.”
These trends, too, are charted by Lim. Basically what has happened, he shows, is that rather than seeking to persuade voters by arguing for their policies, presidents increasingly have sought to build trust by identifying themselves with those voters and their “common sense” view of the world. “Whereas all of the presidents through Woodrow Wilson appealed to ‘common sense' just 11 times in their recorded papers, presidents since Wilson have done so more than 1,600 times,” he writes.
Lim knows that the forces feeding the trends he describes will not easily be reversed. But he calls on politicians to think on their role as educators of the public, and on the public to demand straight talk from those who would be president.