Presidential Speeches by Reading Level

The website Vocative recently used the Flesch-Kincaid readability test to rank over 600 presidential speeches by “grade level.”Screen Shot 2014-10-15 at 11.24.02 PM

Looks like, if the trend continues, we can  look forward to grunts and incoherent babbling by the 2032 election.

However, according to Jeff Shesol, former speech writer for Bill Clinton, things aren’t as bleak as they seem:

“…it’s actually a sign of democratization. In the early Republic, presidents could assume that they were speaking to audiences made up mostly of men like themselves: educated, civic-minded landowners. These, of course, were the only Americans with the right to vote. But over time, the franchise expanded and presidential appeals had to reach a broader audience.”

Which makes sense, but at the same time, early presidents probably weren’t exclusively targeting a “20th grade” demographic (whatever that means), so this may have more to do with increasing anti-intellectualism than appealing to the masses.

Either way, looking at the chart, I find individual presidents’ ranges to be the most interesting part: Many presidents we regard as brilliant speakers were, in terms of readability, the most inconsistent. Abraham Lincoln soared with the elocutionary eagles during the Emancipation Proclamation, but also held the lowball record of our first 150 years. Washington, Jefferson, Wilson, and JFK also had impressively broad ranges, demonstrating purposeful consideration and audience awareness.

The other big surprise is that Barack Obama is not necessarily the savior of rhetoric he’s often considered to be. In fact, in terms of official speeches, he’s fairly lock-n-step with his predecessor – though keep in mind these ratings don’t include interviews or impromptu commentary (if they did, I’d enjoy seeing our current Vice Pres thrown into the mix as well).

As arbitrary a measure as “readability” may be, such a consistent downward trend clearly demonstrates that something is going on. Definitely click through Shesol’s analysis on the website and see what you think.

In the meantime, do you agree with Shesol that this apparent decline is a sign of good democracy, or are we just expecting less eloquence from our leaders? As a nation – and as a world – we’re more literate than we’ve ever been, so why do our leaders increasingly appear less so?

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