Raise High the RaftersAnother:
A major reason that Obama’s rhetoric seems to soar so high is that our expectations have sunk so low. In a new book, The Anti-Intellectual Presidency, Elvin T. Lim subjects all the words ever publicly intoned by American presidents to a thorough statistical analysis—and he finds, unsurprisingly, an alarmingly steady decline. A century ago, Lim writes, presidential speeches were pitched at a college reading level; today, they’re down to eighth grade, and if the trend continues, next century’s State of the Union addresses will be conducted at the level of “a comic strip or a fifth-grade textbook.” (“Iran’s crawling with bad guys: BAP!”) Since 1913, the length of the average presidential sentence has fallen from 35 words to 22. Between Nixon and the second Bush, the average presidential sound bite shrank from 42 seconds to 7. Today’s State of the Unions inspire roughly 30 seconds of applause for every 60 seconds of speech. Although it’s tempting to blame the sorry state of things on the current malapropist-in-chief, Bush is only the latest flower (though, obviously, a particularly striking one) on a very deep weed. Our most brilliant presidents, Lim says, often work hard to seem publicly dumb in order to avoid the stain of elitism—amazingly, Bill Clinton’s total rhetorical output checks in at a lower reading level than Bush’s. Clinton’s former speechwriters told Lim that their image-conscious boss always demanded that his speeches be “more talky”; today, he’s widely remembered as a brilliant speaker who never gave a memorable speech.
Obama seems to have taken the opposite tack: He’s a Clinton-style natural who flaunts the artifice of his speeches and refuses to strategically hide his intelligence. Compared with his rivals, Obama’s skill-set seems almost otherworldly. His phrases line up regularly in striking and meaningful patterns; his cliché ratio is, for a politician, admirably low; his stresses and pauses seem dictated less by the usual metronome of generic political speech than by the actual structures of meaning behind his words. He tolerates complexity to such an extent that he’s sometimes criticized as “professorial,” which allows him to get away with inspirational catchphrases that would sound like platitudes coming from anyone else. His naïve-sounding calls for change are persuasive largely because he’s already managed to improve one of our most intractable political problems: the decades-old, increasingly virulent plague of terrible speechifying. The signature project of his candidacy—before health care or housing or Iraq—seems to be the reuniting of presidential discourse with actual, visible thought. It is not a trivial achievement.
Brilliant policy requires brilliant public discourse. If you can think your way through a sentence, then you can think your way through a policy paper—or a 3 A.M. phone call.And another:
My relationship to Obama has been a complex cycle of enthusiasm canceled immediately by self-correcting cynical objections, canceled by self-correcting enthusiasm, canceled again by the cynicism, canceled by the enthusiasm. Is he really this good, I wonder constantly, or do we just need him to be? The speech that finally tipped my inner scale decisively toward belief was his least decorative: no refrain, little alliteration, no audience exploding at shouted catchphrases—just the man himself standing there solemnly, neutralizing the hysteria of a potentially career-killing scandal with the naked power of grown-up thought. With his race speech, Obama chose the riskiest path in American politics: to be conspicuously thoughtful. It would have been like Clinton, in 1998, giving a long contextualizing address to the nation about human sexuality, the international status of adultery, etc. It was one of the most encouraging political moments I’ve ever experienced. [emphasis mine]