Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

The Anti-Intellectual Presidency: The Decline of Presidential Rhetoric

from George Washington to George W. Bush

by Elvin T. Lim

Oxford University Press, 208 pages, $24.95

In our times, we are not surprised that in policy statements slogans will be valued over explanations and parsimony of words valued over complete accounts. For a defense of the war in Iraq, for example, we expect applause lines such as “When the Iraqis stand up, we’ll stand down.” For more serious policy engagement, we look to wonky policy journals, not to the president.

Most of us have come to accept this state of affairs, but not Elvin Lim. His recent book The Anti-Intellectual Presidency is not one more rant about the limited cognitive abilities of George W. Bush but a brisk, methodical deconstruction of “the relentless simplification of presidential rhetoric in the last two centuries and the increasing substitution of arguments with applause-rendering platitudes, partisan punch lines and emotional and human interest appeals.”

The problem is real. Analyzing all the presidential inaugural addresses, for example, Lim shows that the average sentence length has become ever shorter and the level of vocabulary ever lower. The rallyesque State of the Union address that is now typical—a sequence of punchy lines designed to elicit applause—was unheard of until the Nixon administration. At that time, the average media sound bite was forty-two seconds, which sounds almost Faulkneresque compared to a mere eight seconds in 2000.

In contrast to the elevated, didactic level of discourse expected in, for example, Lincoln’s era, which produced the likes of the Gettysburg Address, the Public Papers of the Clinton administration show that “government was conducted in the language of eighth- and ninth-graders.”

Using logos (argument), ethos (credibility), and pathos (emotion)—the distinctions Aristotle made in rhetoric—Lim observes that logos has been all but eclipsed in modern presidential speeches. Today, for example, Woodrow Wilson’s professorial speech in support of the League of Nations proposal seems almost otherworldly. “I have perceived more and more that men have been busy creating an absolutely false impression of what the treaty of peace and the Covenant of the League of Nations contain and mean,” Wilson said, and he followed it with a point-by-point refutation. He did not hesitate to engage the kind of detail that we would now expect from National Public Radio rather than from the president himself: “You have heard a great deal—something that was true and a great deal that was false—about that provision of the treaty which hands over to Japan the rights which Germany enjoyed in the province of Shantung in China.”

Wilson’s focus on explanation was not exotic in his time. Franklin Roosevelt’s fireside chats were regularly praised as “instructive” and “explanatory” by listeners, descriptions distinctly unlikely for any president today. More typical today is the contrast between a paragraph of one of Bush’s speeches defending the Iraq War at its start and one made at the same time by Great Britain’s then prime minister, Tony Blair. Lim notes that Blair’s paragraph contained seven reasons for invading Iraq, while Bush’s contained only one, with an eye cast toward pathos rather than logos: “We choose to meet that threat now, where it arises, before it can appear suddenly in our skies and cities.”

In an era when the mark of a well-received speech is judged to be personality and theatrics, oratory no longer exists, at least as oratory was once understood. Lim notes that Ronald Reagan was lauded by many as a “great communicator” rather than as a “great orator.” An instructive contrast is with William Jennings Bryan, once known as “the boy orator of the Platte.” It would have been hard, a century ago, to appreciate the value we today place on a speaker “connecting” with his audience. Where Theodore Roosevelt explained, Bill Clinton connected. As one of Clinton’s speechwriters recalls, “There is no one who is more easily articulate in my memory, and I can’t remember a thing he said.” Lim notes that Roosevelt’s “oration was qualitatively distinct from Bill Clinton’s conversation.”

Surely the advent of microphones and radio played some part in rendering presidential addresses more conversational than the declamations of Roosevelt and Bryan. The elevated pitch and formality of old-fashioned oratory was partly a function of its being uttered at high volume in order to be audible to large numbers of people. Lim, however, rightly dismisses this as a significant factor in the creeping anti-intellectualism in presidential statements, for the trend has continued—indeed, accelerated—in the years since those technological changes. Nor can we say that the problem is that presidents are now expected to speak more to the public. Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt were both prolific speakers, and yet their statements were vastly more intellectual than those of such presidents as Harding and Eisenhower.

Lim places the blame for this decline on speechwriters to a large extent. He regrets the emergence of staffers assigned solely to write presidential speeches, in contrast to earlier speechwriters who doubled as policymakers and were thus naturally inclined to lend content to speeches rather than mere wordcraft. Having interviewed more than sixty former presidential speechwriters, he concludes that “speechwriters in the last half century have, by their own accounts, killed oratory.”

The “by their own accounts” is key: The speechwriters themselves regularly agree that they tuned their writing down on purpose. They did so, however, for a reason that deflects some of the blame Lim assigns: Presidents themselves liked it that way. A former speechwriter for Eisenhower records that he had “more than a healthy scorn for the contrived and effortful. It extended to a distrust of eloquence.” Even John F. Kennedy rejected complex phraseology, telling one speechwriter, “Adlai Stevenson was comfortable with this, but it’s too complex and literary for me.”

Lim certainly has no problems wielding logos himself and makes a rigorous argument. In the end, however, he sees the presidential trees and misses the national forest. Lim generally writes as though the decline in presidential speechmaking were an isolated phenomenon, when what he describes correlates rather plainly with the general decay of American rhetoric over the previous century.

Actors and radio announcers were once trained to sound almost British in their elocution; in the wake of World War II, America’s standard dialect became a more meat-and-potatoes Midwestern. By the early 1950s, rhythm and blues and rock and roll were making rapid inroads into the musical landscape. We had Brando, the Beats, and then the Beatles. Men stopped wearing hats and jackets; women put on the miniskirt.

Lim pays some lip service to larger trends but focuses on a narrower analysis, carefully posing that the increasing anti-intellectualism in presidential rhetoric resulted from a “tyranny of small decisions” effected by speechwriters and presidents taking their cue from the linguistic tone of the administrations preceding them. This analysis, however, can explain only so much. Truman may well have despaired of equaling Franklin Roosevelt’s eloquence and instead emphasized his own flinty straight-talking persona, while Lyndon Johnson was linguistically insecure and simply did not seek eloquence at all. This kind of analysis, however, fails to explain why in the nineteenth century even a plain-spoken ex-general such as Ulysses S. Grant pitched his official statements at the grand level, while a plain-spoken ex-general such as Dwight Eisenhower did not—or why Richard Nixon’s oratory was even more conversational than Lyndon Johnson’s.

The overarching explanation is the cultural context of an American culture that embraced informality in the 1920s and kept at it ever since. Clinton, for example, was not simply possessed with an animus toward flowery speech, and he certainly did not consciously decide to sound less formal than his notoriously inarticulate predecessor, George H.W. Bush. He was, instead, someone who had smoked pot in dormitories while listening to the kind of music that the parents in Bye Bye Birdie reviled—and that was the source of his rhetoric.

Lim considers anti-intellectualism in presidential speeches an especially dire problem, constituting a threat to democracy because it infects public discourse with demagoguery. Would we really be better off if Lim could have it his way? “Presidential rhetoric should articulate programs to citizens in a manner that solicits their support only if its wisdom passes muster,” he declares. That sounds wonderful, and Lim considers the general public’s interest in grappling with political issues underestimated. Yet, of late, Hillary Clinton focused her speeches on policy—which is to say, on something like logos, just as Lim would prefer. And she has lost the Democratic nomination to Barack Obama, who first electrified the electorate with touching autobiography and comfort-food proclamations about hope and unity—that is, with ethos and pathos.

One might also question whether public engagement with policy issues was, in truth, significantly higher when presidential speeches were pitched higher. How many ordinary Americans could wax eloquent about the pros and cons of the gold standard in the 1890s, despite the fact that orators of the level of William Jennings Bryan were making the rounds? The electorate that listened to Wilson went on to elect Harding, partly because he was handsome and partly because he made speeches high on pathos. Moreover, his “return to normalcy” mantra used a word many considered not even to exist.

Nevertheless, amid the impressionistic plaints so common against the dumbing down of American culture, The Anti-Intellectual Presidency is a useful empirical demonstration of one facet of a larger cultural transformation. In our come-as-you-are America, Dick Cheney’s response to an interviewer’s observation about widespread public opposition to the war in Iraq with “So?” is business as usual. We might dispute whether this kind of thing constitutes the threat to the American republic that Lim suggests, but it does almost make one long for the return of Warren G. Harding.

John McWhorter is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.