Keep Presidential Speeches Smart

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Medialand

Trevor Butterworth, 06.22.10

Trevor Butterworth is the editor of stats.org, an affiliate of George Mason University that looks at how numbers are used in public policy and the media. He writes a weekly column for Forbes.

If the Gulf oil spill is a national tragedy, the arguments over President Obama’s response to it have descended into a national farce. When former law professors go looking for “ass to kick,” they end up looking like the eponymous hero of Kickass, a nerdy kid copying moves he’s seen in comic books. The difference is that the fictional Kickass was ennobled by failure, which, sadly, is not the kind of outcome open to the President of the United States in matters of national importance.

Obama’s mistake was to respond to the Rock’Em Sock’Em Robots of punditry. The country didn’t want Spock at the helm during environmental armageddon, they protested; the situation demanded a theatrically-appropriate response–as if the presidency was the background music to the movie of our lives, rousing in adversity, compassionate in suffering, a boom box of linguistic effects.

If style is the image of character, you cannot go from the calmest, most judicious intellectual in the room to a Schwarzenegger character in leather trousers and expect to be perceived as authentic. This is why responding to his critics was the wrong thing to do. By following their lame advice, by trying to be someone he isn’t, Obama sounded bathetic.

All of this is an object lesson in how democracy isn’t helped by the media. Just as an analysis of the Katrina response shows that it was a complex systematic failure of government and not a simple fumble by George W. Bush and “heck of a job” Brownie, the Gulf oil spill is not really in the league of a car wreck caused by distracted texting. The very intractability of the problem demands openness, an admission of complexity and a detailed description of solutions that are being pursued. And yet, according to one manufacturer of conventional wisdom, the problem was not that Obama’s White House address on the spill was too simple or vague, it was that it wasn’t simple enough. As CNN reported:

“Obama’s speech may have gone over the heads of many in his audience, according to an analysis of the 18-minute talk released Wednesday by Paul J.J. Payack, president of Global Language Monitor. Tuesday night’s speech from the Oval Office of the White House was written to a 9.8 grade level, said Payack, who gave Obama a ‘solid B.’ His Austin, Texas-based company analyzes and catalogues trends in word usage and word choice and their impact on culture.”

The president’s 19.8 words per sentence apparently “added some difficulty for his target audience.” But 19.8 words is well within the breath of television’s cutthroat culture of political sound bites, which now stands at seven seconds. Indeed, as Elvin T. Lim notes in his brilliant historical and linguistic analysis of presidential rhetoric, The Anti-Intellectual Presidency, the average presidential sentence in recent years (as defined by speeches) has ranged from 15 to 20 words, well within the assumed attention span of the presumptive television viewer.

But now, even this is apparently too difficult for most Americans to follow. It gets worse. Take the following sentence from the President’s speech, “That is why just after the rig sank, I assembled a team of our nation’s best scientists and engineers to tackle this challenge–a team led by Dr. Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist and our nation’s Secretary of Energy.” According to Payack, this is the kind of phrasing that makes the President seem “aloof and out of touch.” It’s too professorial, too academic and not “ordinary enough.” Perhaps the President should just have tweeted “I got smart folks fixin’ to fix the oil spill” and let everyone go back to their regular broadcast fare or communicating with each other in grunts and clicks.

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