Trumpet of Idiocracy

Now here’s a book I’m looking forward to (and may review): The Anti-Intellectual Presidency: The Decline of Presidential Rhetoric from George Washington to George W. Bush by Elvin T. Lim.

The title might suggest an anti-Bush screed, but having read some of Lim’s work on presidential rhetoric, I have no doubt it’s sober and scholarly. Though it’s probably dryly amusing as well, as suggested by this article, which touches on some of themes in the new book. In the article, Lim writes:

Thus, whereas William Henry Harrison likened liberty to “the sovereign balm for every injury which our institutions may receive” in his inaugural address, George Bush simply likened it to a kite: “Freedom is like a beautiful kite that can go higher and higher with the breeze,” he proclaimed.

Here’s a description of the new book:

How is it that contemporary presidents talk so much and yet say so little, as H. L. Mencken once described, 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 too preoccupied in our search for a “Great Communicator,” and have failed to take presidents to task for what they communicate to 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 simplification of presidential rhetoric. If these trends persist, Lim projects that the State of the Union addresses in the next century could actually read at the fifth-grade level. 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.

Of course, Mencken also said:

As democracy is perfected, the office represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. We move toward a lofty ideal. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their hearts desire at last, and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.

The Baltimore Evening Sun, July 26, 1920

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Posted on Apr 10, 2008 in Cult of the Presidency, Uncategorized | Comments

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