November 28, 2008

Book: The Anti-Intellectual Presidency

This book by Elvin T. Lim looks interesting: The Anti-Intellectual Presidency: The Decline of Presidential Rhetoric from George Washington to George W. Bush.

From the review by John McWhorter:
In our times, we are not surprised that in policy statements slogans will be valued over explanations and parsimony of words valued over complete accounts. For a defense of the war in Iraq, for example, we expect applause lines such as “When the Iraqis stand up, we’ll stand down.” For more serious policy engagement, we look to wonky policy journals, not to the president.

Most of us have come to accept this state of affairs, but not Elvin Lim. His recent book The Anti-Intellectual Presidency is not one more rant about the limited cognitive abilities of George W. Bush but a brisk, methodical deconstruction of “the relentless simplification of presidential rhetoric in the last two centuries and the increasing substitution of arguments with applause-rendering platitudes, partisan punch lines and emotional and human interest appeals.”

The problem is real. Analyzing all the presidential inaugural addresses, for example, Lim shows that the average sentence length has become ever shorter and the level of vocabulary ever lower. The rallyesque State of the Union address that is now typical—a sequence of punchy lines designed to elicit applause—was unheard of until the Nixon administration. At that time, the average media sound bite was forty-two seconds, which sounds almost Faulkneresque compared to a mere eight seconds in 2000.
Read the entire review.

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