The Anti-Intellectual Presidency: The Decline of Presidential Rhetoric from George Washington to George W. Bush

The Anti-Intellectual Presidency: The Decline of Presidential Rhetoric from George Washington to George W. Bush

The Anti-Intellectual Presidency: The Decline of Presidential Rhetoric from George Washington to George W. Bush

The Anti-Intellectual Presidency: The Decline of Presidential Rhetoric from George Washington to George W. Bush

Synopsis

How is it that contemporary presidents talk so much and yet say so little, as H. L. Mencken once descibed, like "dogs barking idiotically through endless nights?" In The Anti-Intellectual Presidency, Elvin Lim tackles this puzzle and argues forcefully that it is because we have been toopreoccupied in our search for a "Great Communicator," and have failed to take presidents to task for what they communicate to us. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton, he argues, spoke in a qualitatively different style than Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt. Reagan and Clinton merely connected with us;the two Roosevelts educated us. To alert us to the gradual rot of presidential rhetoric, Lim examines two centuries of presidential speeches to demonstrate the relentless and ever-increasing simplificaton of presidential rhetoric. If these trends persist, Lim projects that the State of the Union addresses in the nextcentury could actually read at the fifth-grade level. Lim argues that the ever-increasing tendency for presidents to crowd out argument in presidential rhetoric with applause-rendering platitudes and partisan punch-lines was concertedly implemented by the modern White House. Through a series of interviews with former presidential speechwriters,he shows that the anti-intellectual stance was a deliberate choice rather than a reflection of presidents' intellectual limitations. Only the smart, he suggests, know how to "dumb down." Because anti-intellectual rhetoric impedes, rather than facilitates communication and deliberation, Lim warns that we must do something to recondition a political culture so easily seduced by smooth-operating anti-intellectual presidents. Sharply written and incisively argued, The Anti-Intellectual Presidency sheds new light on the murky depths of presidential utterances and its consequences for American democracy.

Excerpt

The state of presidential rhetoric today has taken a nosedive from our founding era. the influential journalist and satirist H. L. Mencken once wrote of President Warren Harding’s inaugural address: “It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights. It is so bad that a sort of grandeur creeps into it.” Mencken’s assessment would not have been too far off in describing the speeches of Harding’s successors in the White House, but his complaint also addresses a deeper problem with an ancient pedigree. Our society’s disquiet toward presidential rhetoric is as old as Plato’s belief that “oratory is a spurious counterfeit of a branch of the art of government,” and it is as entrenched as the conventional diagnosis that presidential leadership has become too “rhetorical.” There is widespread sentiment today that the pathologies of modern presidential government derive from the loquaciousness of the office and that if presidents spent less time talking and campaigning, they would spend more time deliberating and governing. But the Greeks were not straightforwardly opposed to rhetoric. After all, their arguments were put forth in Socratic dialogues. It was a particular type of rhetoric that Plato decried, the type that was used to pander to and seduce the people. Already at the inception of rhetorical studies, Plato had distinguished “mere rhetoric”—words crafted to equivocate, flatter, or seduce—and meaningful . . .

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.