- The Anti-Intellectual Presidency: The Decline of Presidential Rhetoric from George Washington to George W. Bush
Elvin T. Lim, an assistant professor of government at Wesleyan University, has produced an intriguing study that presents a distinct challenge to presidential scholars and contemporary political culture. Lim shapes his argument as follows: "The problem of presidential rhetoric in our time resides not in its quantity, but in its quality. The problem is not that 'going public' has become a routine presidential practice; it is that while presidents talk a lot, they say very little that contributes constructively to public deliberation. Our problem is the anti-intellectual presidency, not the rhetorical presidency" (x). In general, this dilemma is derived from presidential acts of "linguistic simplification" (xii).
Importantly, Lim is not so much concerned with the rhetorical presidency and the tension Tulis finds in his "two constitutions" thesis, nor even with the problem of quantity that quantitative researchers point to as injurious to "interbranch deliberation, governance, and action" (122). Rather, his fear is that the poor quality of presidential discourse is corrupting our present political institutions. Reasoned argument has been sorely missing. Too much simplification has led to oversimplification. Thus, presidential discourse in the modern age is riddled with sloganeering, pandering, and pusillanimous puffery. Presidents have tumbled headlong from an age of orators to chummy [End Page 145] conversationalists. Lim ascribes this decline to the modern institutionalization of the speechwriting process in which the speechwriters' "agenda-setting, situational, and gatekeeping power means that, while they are no longer, formally, policy advisors, they are de facto policymakers" (96). Lim's solutions emphasize a "pedagogical presidency" where "presidents infuse their rhetoric with arguments and substance" (120). In giving up the notion that "rhetorical simplification is always good," and in conceiving and practicing presidential rhetoric as a communal rather than a personal resource, Lim's improved model envisions the president not as the "great communicator," but rather as the "great teacher" (121).
To advance his argument, Lim employs quantitative content analysis. He utilizes Flesch Readability Scores "to make relative claims about the readability trends of presidential rhetoric across time" (26). The Flesch formula translates "readability" as "linguistic simplicity," and this allows Lim to monitor the "substantive simplicity of a text" (25). In addition, Lim employs General Inquirer (GI) content analysis as a technique to search for patterns of presidential discourse that might not be detected through other means. The GI methodology assists Lim in concluding that contemporary presidential rhetoric is "short on logos, disingenuous on ethos, and long on pathos" (54).
As a qualitative rhetorical scholar, I am not in a position to issue a fully nuanced critique of these methods. Still, there are a few qualms that haunt me regarding Lim's approach. When setting up the argument for his methodology, Lim charges that the past bias has been to focus on "great" presidents. He also marshals a number of rhetorical scholars to support his thesis that the extant scholarship "focuses on rhetoric as a personal resource" which means it will "be uncritically focused on whatever is persuasive and will neglect the systemic costs of successful, and sometimes anti-intellectual, rhetorical acts" (13–14). Although many studies do indeed reflect Lim's concerns (many of them most conspicuous in rhetorical studies that appeared in the mid- to late twentieth-century studies of presidential public address), I would hasten to point out that the best contemporary studies in rhetorical scholarship, including not least among them those that appear in this very journal, often go beyond merely adducing the "great man" and his individual influence to touch upon a variety of complex rhetorical situations, contexts, institutional processes, policy goals, and outcomes.
My lingering reservations rest largely on Lim's choice of genres of presidential public address to scrutinize. The Flesch Readability test is applied to two generic forms of presidential address: inaugural and State of the [End Page 146] Union addresses. Although analysis of the two genres allows for access and comparative...