TO UNDERSTAND WHERE, exactly, Obama’s speech belongs on the shelves of Cabinet 1A — where it fits into history — we’ve got to tumble back to a time when men really did climb onto stumps to shout out their thoughts. The question of presidential eloquence and substance — or, some would say, eloquence vs. substance — is as old as the job itself.
In his farewell address, George Washington set the tone for his successors with sweeping turns of phrase. “Citizens by birth or choice of a common country, that country has a right to concentrate your affections,” he hollered beautifully. “The name of American, which belongs to you, in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of Patriotism, more than any appellation derived from local discriminations.”
Later, Abraham Lincoln delivered an address at Gettysburg that stands today as perhaps the finest presidential speech ever. He did it in 10 sentences so lapidary — so carved — they almost defy excerption. But here is one elegiac passage: “Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war.”
Later still, a thunderous Theodore Roosevelt called the presidential podium his “bully pulpit,” from which he did not engage in the now-popular “conversation” with the people, but unabashedly talked at them. Consider this, from a lecture on conservation of natural resources: “So any nation which in its youth lives only for the day, reaps without sowing, and consumes without husbanding, must expect the penalty of the prodigal whose labor could with difficulty find him the bare means of life.”
It’s worth noting that Roosevelt delivered that piece of hardy rhetoric to a group of schoolchildren.
And lastly, in tidy parallel, Franklin D. Roosevelt doffed his fedora and gave one of his most famous speeches before the Democratic convention in 1936 — in Philadelphia. “Governments can err, presidents do make mistakes,” he said, “but the immortal Dante tells us that divine justice weighs the sins of the cold-blooded and the sins of the warmhearted in different scales.”
So where did this sort of presidential expression go? And would we, as Americans, put up with it today?
Elvin Lim, a professor at Wesleyan University, has devised a way to measure the speech of presidents throughout history, and his findings are bleak. Roosevelt and his contemporaries spoke at the collegiate level; modern presidents offer speeches at eighth-grade level (George W. Bush is, perhaps to his own surprise, not the worst); and when that much time has passed again, Lim says, our presidents will use the language of elementary- school children. Children who are, that is, barely literate.
Lim writes in his recently published book The Anti-Intellectual Presidency that every president wants to be regarded as a man of the people, and that “the more presidents simplify, the further their successors must go.” That’s why Bush swore, after his failed bid for Congress in 1978, to “never get out-countried again.” And he wasn’t.