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Slovenly Words and Foolish Deeds

Elvin Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University and author of The Anti-intellectual Presidency, which draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents’ ability to communicate with the public. He also blogs at www.elvinlim.com. In the article below he reflects Obama’s speaking style. Read his previous OUPblogs here.

President Barack Obama’s first press conference was serious, measured, and according to Mark Nikolas (Politicalbase.com), three grade levels more complex than President George W. Bush’s first press conference.

A cursory glance at readers’ comments to Nikolas’ post reveals sharp disagreements about both the empirical claim and its implications. Since I have used the Flesch readability scale to score the rhetoric of every president since George Washington, I will venture to offer some observations to suggest that George Bush and Barack Obama aren’t all that different.

Superficially, they couldn’t be more different. While the former president is a self-styled cowboy who has rejected his northeastern roots in favor of a Texan down-home speaking style, the current one is a former professor of constitutional law who (if one recalls his speech on race in Philadelphia at the height of the Jeremiah Wright fiasco) will not demure from pontificating on things complex and controversial. I doubt many people will argue that Bush was a more sophisticated speaker, but people disagree about whether or not his simple sentences were delivered at the expense of complex thoughts.

Complex thoughts can be simply expressed, his defenders contend. But Einstein also said that “things should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.” Consider John Robert’s question to President Bush in his first press conference in 2001: “I’m wondering what message he (the Secretary of State) will take from this administration to leaders of the Middle East in the area of sanctions that matter, sanctions that are effective on the regime?”

President Bush answered in his inimitable style: “I have said that the sanction regime is like Swiss cheese. That meant that they weren’t very effective. And we’re going to review the current sanction policy and review options as to how to make the sanctions work. But the primary goal is to make it clear to Saddam that we expect him to be a peaceful neighbor in the region, and we expect him not to develop weapons of mass destruction; and if we find him doing so, there will be a consequence.”

President Bush dedicated little time to “review options” on improving the efficacy of sanctions on Saddam’s regime. And the conditional clause “if we find him (Saddam) doing so” (developing WMDs) was far from satisfied before the President rushed to war. The fact is it was by our president’s slovenly words that we were led to do rather foolish things, as George Orwell warned.

Yes, we need a president who connects with the people. Simple words can conceal complex thoughts. But that is exactly the problem. If we allow presidents to sweet talk us with simple platitudes, and assume that complex negotiations and deliberations are going on behind the scenes and outside of public earshot, we abdicate our role as citizens to adjudicate the direction of public policy. A seduced citizenry cannot hold their executive accountable. Eloquent platitudes generate applause, not reflection. As a component of democratic discourse, they are, like Swiss cheese, utterly inadequate.

Lest this may sound like a partisan post, let me say that Obama is not immune to the draw of anti-intellectualism. The President’s and Secretary Geitner’s messages on the economic stimulus package and especially TARP 2 have thus far been woefully lacking in detail. The President is back to being the Poet-in-Chief, taking his message on road as if he never left the campaign trail. The stock market takes no partisan sides, and it has not taken kindly to the president’s eloquent generalities.

Life is like a box of chocolates, Mama Gump once told Forrest. Profound truths can be simply said, but what we need now are concrete solutions, not quotable verses. President Obama may be speaking at a higher grade level than President Bush, but so far, he appears no more adept at offering us precise answers. The President can use his words – simple or complex – to educate or to obfuscate. The choice is his.

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