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The State of the Presidential Speech
Where We Live - with John Dankosky
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Do you feel like Presidential speeches are too "dumbed down"?


Episode Audio

49:14 minutes (23.64 MB)
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Elvin Lim: Photo by Kaitlin MeehanElvin Lim: Photo by Kaitlin MeehanIf the level of discourse in American life has suffered - it may be time to listen to what's coming from the oval office. The presidential speech has devolved from college-level, to something that might be right for an 8th grade assembly - at least according to our guest, Elvin Lim.

The Wesleyan professor's new book, The Anti-Intellectual Presidency, looks at how Presidential rhetoric has declined over the years - into a series of uninformative sound bites - meant for partisan applause lines - not to lead and move a nation.

We'll talk about how presidents from Eisenhower to Clinton carefully avoided speech that might make them sound "elite" - and how some presidents - the current one comes to mind - actually revel in an "anti-intellectual" approach to governing.

We'll also be joined by David Frum - the former Bush Administration speechwriter will talk about the role of "behind the scenes" writers in crafting a presidential message.

Join the conversation! Add your suggestions, questions or comments below.

FDR - “On the Progress of the War” – February 23, 1942

0:49 minutes (0.4 MB)
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FDR's First Fireside Chat – “The Banking Crisis” – March 12, 1933

1:03 minutes (0.5 MB)
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Ronald Reagan - Germany - June 12, 1987

1:02 minutes (0.5 MB)
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President G. W. Bush - State of the Union “Axis of Evil” - January 29, 2002

0:56 minutes (0.46 MB)
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Bill Clinton on Arsenio Hall, 1992

1:03 minutes (0.51 MB)
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Hi, this is Nick in New Haven,

While I understand that your previous caller has to pick something
measurable in order to do research, I think it's a mistake to separate
words from the delivery of words, rhetoric from speech making.

If you look at some of the great speakers of history, I think you'll
find that they come out at a fairly low 'reading grade level'.
Churchill was famous for his punchy, spare language, language that
almost everyone could understand. But Churchill's delivery was so
thoughtful, so surprising (if you listen to his speeches he does almost
everything wrong... and somehow makes it work) that he managed to
amplify this language to create something inspiring and, in fact, jam
quite a lot of substance in there too. Despite what people say about
his facility as a writer, if you real a Churchill speech, aside from the
few famous sound bites, they just kind of fade into the page. Listen to
them, though, that they're totally different.

I know I probably shouldn't make a second point, as I've made my sound
byte, but I think there is a very interesting thing happening in the US,
in terms of rhetoric.

Frankly, I'm sorry to say that the standard of public oratory in
American politics is very low. How can a country that wins so many
Nobel prises produce such a small number of world-class public
speakers? Because it isn't training them.

This might be a little tongue-in-cheek, but only a little... generally
speaking, politicians learn to speak in college debating societies. In
the US, college level debating has been infected by a series of rules
that force the speaker to give their speech in a very narrow range of
acceptable styles and formats. You want to develop your own unique
style of speech-making? Too bad, you loose the game. That means that
Americans, to paraphrase Professor Higgins, can't teach their
child-politicians how to speak. And without that basic training in the
craft of speech-making, how can one expect them to deliver sophisticated
and interesting rhetoric? It does explain, does it not, why America's
best speakers are former actors and churchmen.

- NG