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

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Why has it been so long since an American president has effectively and consistently presented well-crafted, intellectually substantive arguments to the American public? Why have presidential utterances fallen from the rousing speeches of Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Wilson, and FDR to a series of robotic repetitions of talking points and sixty-second soundbites, largely designed to obfuscate rather than illuminate?

In The Anti-Intellectual Presidency, Elvin Lim draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents' ability to communicate with the public. Lim argues that the ever-increasing pressure for presidents to manage public opinion and perception has created a "pathology of vacuous rhetoric and imagery" where gesture and appearance matter more than accomplishment and fact. Lim tracks the campaign to simplify presidential discourse through presidential and speechwriting decisions made from the Truman to the present administration, explaining how and why presidents have embraced anti-intellectualism and vague platitudes as a public relations strategy. Lim sees this anti-intellectual stance as a deliberate choice rather than a reflection of presidents' intellectual limitations. Only the smart, he suggests, know how to dumb down. The result, he shows, is a dangerous debasement of our political discourse and a quality of rhetoric which has been described, charitably, as "a linguistic struggle" and, perhaps more accurately, as "dogs barking idiotically through endless nights."

Sharply written and incisively argued, The Anti-Intellectual Presidency sheds new light on the murky depths of presidential oratory, illuminating both the causes and consequences of this substantive impoverishment.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Sheds fascinating and disturbing light on the torrent of communications that are unleashed by the 'communicator in chief.'... he argues that the real problem is not the increased quantity of words coming out of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. but the sharp decline in content--especially of logical argument."--David S. Broder, Washington Post

" propels the debate over the public presidency in a fresh direction...This creative and eye-opening book should be read not only by those who study the rhetoric of the contemporary presidency, but by anyone who cares about the health of America's public discourse."--Political Science Quarterly

"Lim's presentation of the consequences of the manipulation of language in the political arena is clear and compelling, and will delight grammarians and political aficionados alike."--Publishers Weekly

"Recent American presidents have dumbed down democratic discourse, Elvin Lim shows in his disturbing new study of presidential leadership. The chief culprits are presidential speechwriters, who prize style over substance and subvert the reasoned articulation of policy. Timely, well written, and highly recommended."--Jeffrey K. Tulis, author of The Rhetorical Presidency

"That 'Presidents and speechwriters have killed oratory and gone anti-intellectual' will come as no surprise. But why? No scholar has thought more carefully and analyzed more rigorously this historic change in presidential communication with the public. This book will spawn important debates about the meaning and consequences of the 'dumbing down' of presidential rhetoric. It is a tour de force."--Elizabeth Sanders, Department of Government, Cornell University

"Elvin Lim documents a disturbing trend. Presidents are talking more, but their speech is getting less substantive and less informative. Simple declarations have come to substitute for reasoned arguments. Lim's findings ring true, all the more so for their careful empirical grounding and elegant presentation. I know of no book on presidential rhetoric that cuts more directly and effectively to the point."--Stephen Skowronek, Pelatiah Perit Professor of Political and Social Science, Yale University

"Elvin Lim argues convincingly that politics has been dumbed-down but that enlightened civic conversation is possible if politicians will only try. Lim also believes that the American people want to be stretched intellectually and emotionally. The dark trail he traces therefore ends in a sunburst of hope that I find heartening."--Roderick P. Hart, Dean Shivers/Cronkite Chair in Communication, College of Communication, University of Texas at Austin

Publishers Weekly

This slim, scathing book does not mince words about the current state of presidential rhetoric, frankly deploring its "nosedive from our founding era." Drawing upon interviews with 42 presidential speech writers, Lim investigates what he sees as a particularly American phenomenon whereby "most presidents have preferred to appear less, not more intellectually inclined than they actually were." He reveals the long "institutional pedigree" of anti-intellectualism in presidential addresses, from Harding to Eisenhower, Clinton ("an intelligent but anti-intellectual president") to Bush, as presidents have positioned intellectuals as the "piñatas of American politics." Lim builds his case systematically, introducing fascinating indices to measure oratorical sophistication or simplicity. A massive campaign of "linguistic simplification" is afoot, he argues, and he dissects inaugural addresses and presidential public papers, charting average sentence length, Flesch Readability and the preponderance of platitudes to evince a growing "reification of style over substance." While his methodology is occasionally esoteric, Lim's presentation of the consequences of the manipulation of language in the political arena is clear and compelling, and will delight grammarians and political aficionados alike. (June)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195342642
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 5/22/2008
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 208
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Elvin T. Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University.

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Table of Contents

1. The Problem of Presidential Rhetoric
2. Rhetorical Simplification and the Anti-intellectual Presidency
3. Creating the Anti-intellectual Presidency
4. Substantive Impoverishment and the Anti-intellectual Presidency
5. Institutionalizing the Anti-intellectual Presidency
6. Defending and Indicting the Anti-intellectual Presidency
7. Reforming the Anti-intellectual Presidency
Appendix I: The General Inquirer (GI)
Appendix II: Definitions of GI Categories Used
Appendix III: Annual Messages, 1790-2006
Appendix IV: Inaugural Addresses, 1789-2005
Appendix V: Presidential Speechwriters Interviewed
Appendix VI: The Flesch Readability Score

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