Barack Obama teaching Con Law at the University of Chicago, home of conservatives, big words, and long sentences
Presidents come in for a lot of criticism, particularly from late-night comics and the party that's out of office. But Republicans, Democrats, and even Socialists should be outraged at the audacity of critics who blame Pres. Barack Obama for pitching his recent speech on the BP oil spill to Americans whose verbal comprehension level is just below that of a tenth-grader. Since most Americans who are old enough to do so have already completed tenth grade, most Americans should be smarter than a ninth-grader.
When they weren't faulting George Bush for rushing blindly into war and destroying the economy, critics satirized the forty-third president for butchering the English language with phrases like, "They misunderestimated me," and "Is our children learning?” Maybe W did go to Harvard and Yale, they groused, but in plain English, he's just too dumb for words.
Now the pendulum has swung the other way. Barack Obama's first Oval Office speech is drawing fire for long words, long sentences, long paragraphs, and the much-to-be-feared passive voice. After all, the forty-fourth president did go to Columbia and Harvard, and he taught Constitutional Law at the University of Chicago, which is not just a hotbed of conservatism, it's also an incubator for long words and sentences. Obama's problem, to these critics, is that he's just too smart to use plain English.
How smart is he? One analyst puts the president’s BP speech at a high ninth-grade reading level (9.8, to be precise), about three grades higher than George Bush's speeches, but not as high as those of JFK (10.8) and exactly the same as the speeches of -- wait for it -- Ronald Reagan. According to another scale, Obama's speech should have been a little easier to understand than an article in Time magazine, also a hotbed of conservatism, though not much of an incubator for long words and sentences.
Even if the average adult American's reading level is between the eighth and ninth grades, as one 1993 study suggests, they should be able to understand the president, Time magazine, and George W. Bush (whose eight long years in office suggest we didn't understand him nearly well enough on election day). They're not reading the president's speech, after all, they're listening to it.
But since the president often displays a professorial air –- not surprising for a former professor –- critics charge that he's both distant and too hard to understand, when in fact it was George Bush who underscored his own aloofness by addressing invitation-only audiences and who hid his meaning behind utterances like "I'm the commander -- see, I don't need to explain -- I do not need to explain why I say things."
And speaking of why we say things, it makes no sense to count the sentences and paragraphs in a presidential speech: nobody speaks in sentences or paragraphs, not Bush, not Obama, not Lincoln, not even Edward Everett, whose two-hour long "Gettysburg Oration" preceded Abraham Lincoln's terser and much better-known 266-word "Gettysburg Address."
Like Lincoln's, Pres. Obama's speech was actually full of short words, most of them no longer than five letters. The polysyllables that Obama used include earthquake, deployment, implement, generations, recklessness, prosecutor, regulations, consequences, unprecedented, (House of) Representatives, associated, Mississippi, and Louisiana.
This isn't the difficult verbiage of hermeneutics or the technical jargon of rocket science, but words that you and any other survivor of the tenth grade can readily understand.
But difficult vocabulary and long sentences, they're not the problem, are they? The real problem –- whatever your politics -- is the ugly anti-intellectualism being hurled at the first president since Jack Kennedy who is smart enough to speak with eloquence as if it was no big thing, and daring enough to raise the level of our political discourse to one that, not just middle-schoolers, but adults as well, should be smart enough to understand.
Who would you rather listen to, the Professor or the Clown?