How Obama’s speeches compare to our Founders’

Brion McClanahan Author, The Founding Fathers Guide to the Constitution
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Much has been made of the fact that according to the Flesch-Kincaid scale, President Obama’s latest State of the Union address peaked at an eighth-grade reading level. Additionally, according to the article that first reported the story, Obama’s addresses have consistently scored in this range. In the past 70 years, only one address, George H.W. Bush’s 1992 offering, has scored lower than any of Obama’s. This led syndicated talk-show host and founding generation proponent Mike Church to publish a brief article comparing Obama’s address with Thomas Jefferson’s first annual message in 1801. The results — and they are not pretty or surprising — are found here. This brilliant work led me to think about how other presidents before 1934 would score, most importantly those from the founding generation and those considered to be unintelligent buffoons by both their contemporaries and the historical establishment.

George Washington is the most important man in American history, and as the first president under the Constitution set several executive precedents. Unfortunately, the quality (and brevity) of an annual message is not one of them. His first annual message to Congress was 828 words long, or about one-quarter the length of Obama’s third address. Regardless, its score on the Gunning Fog index — the “indication of the number of years of formal education that a person requires in order to easily understand the text on the first reading” — is 24.99 and its Flesch-Kincaid level is 22. In other words, according to the Gunning Fog index and the Flesch-Kincaid scale, an individual would need a Ph.D. to understand Washington’s address the first time through, and it would take at least a college degree to read it with little difficulty. The average Gunning Fog score for Washington’s eight annual messages is around 20 and the Flesch-Kincaid is approximately 18. It must be remembered that Washington was virtually homeschooled as a youth. The Gunning Fog for Obama’s third address is 10 and the Flesch-Kincaid is 8.5, but when “we get each other’s backs,” as he so eloquently stated in his address, who cares?

Washington’s addresses were not unique among the founding generation, as the chart indicates. Not bad for a group of men who did not have the comparative advantages of a world-class public school education followed by an expensive American university degree.

The founding generation outperformed not only Obama, but every president of the last 70 years. Interestingly, the president from the founding generation with the lowest average Flesch-Kincaid score, John Adams, was the only one who didn’t hail from Virginia. So much for the general belief that his home state of Massachusetts was the bastion of enlightenment and learning in the early federal period and beyond. But what about two men who have been described as perhaps the most ill-prepared and anti-intellectual presidents in American history, Andrew Jackson and Warren G. Harding? Certainly their scores should be in line with Obama’s, if not lower.

Jackson had a sporadic education as a youth and was viewed as little more than an intense frontiersman by those who came into contact with him. His spelling was atrocious, his grammar worse, he was a poor public speaker, and he admitted formal education meant little to him. He was a lawyer by trade, but anyone could take the bar exam in the antebellum period and many lawyers were self-taught (see: Abraham Lincoln). Jackson’s Gunning Fog: 21; his Flesch-Kincaid: 18. It seems a homespun frontier law degree measures quite well against a modern Ph.D.

Harding attended a small Ohio college, which he graduated from at age 17. He spent most of his time in his father’s newspaper office, and though he was considered a serviceable speaker, he was never known as a wordsmith. After Harding died, the poet E.E. Cummings said, “The only man, woman, or child who ever wrote a simple declarative sentence with seven grammatical errors is dead.” Harding butchered the language, used words like “normalcy,” a term that many thought Harding made up himself, and most considered him to be a vapid politician, an empty suit who could be manipulated by the Republican Party bosses. Harding’s Gunning Fog: 17; his Flesch-Kincaid: 14. What would Cummings say about Obama?

Both of these men, as well as those from the founding generation, wrote their own speeches, and though only Washington, Adams, and Harding delivered them orally, that made little difference in the quality of the addresses. No president in the modern era writes his own speeches, and Calvin Coolidge, Harding’s successor, was the first to employ a speechwriter, perhaps because Americans found Harding’s talent for composition so appalling. And, it is probably no coincidence that since the advent of the speechwriter, the quality of the annual address, at least in regard to the depth and scholarship, has trended downward. Coolidge’s Gunning Fog and Flesch-Kincaid scores were on average three levels lower than Harding’s.

This may be more of an indictment of American education and our Sesame Street-level attention spans than of our presidents, but every president has to approve his addresses, and if Obama is content with a speech that could be heard in a middle school student government debate, then that speaks volumes about both his propensity to demagogue and his lack of substance. Obama and his speechwriters aim for the 30-second sound bite (which is probably how long people listened to his address) tailored for his spin-doctor press secretary and friends in the media.

The media called Obama the most intelligent man of his generation, an erudite academic who would return respectability to the office after years of neglect from the cowboy George W. Bush. Perhaps not. Americans expect too much from the executive office, and the president has usurped tremendous power from the Congress — and the general government from the states — but the president should at least pretend he has a firm grasp of the principles of American government. If Andy Jackson and Warren Harding can pull it off, then the man billed as the smartest individual to ever hold the office should be able to as well. Americans should demand it.

By the way, the Gunning Fog of this piece is 14 and the Flesch-Kincaid is 12. I’m here if you need me, O. I got your back. Fist bump.

Brion McClanahan holds a Ph.D. in American history from the University of South Carolina. He is the author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Founding Fathers (Regnery, 2009) and The Founding Fathers Guide to the Constitution (Regnery History, 2012), as well as the forthcoming Forgotten Conservatives in American History with Clyde Wilson (Pelican, 2012). You can find his Facebook fan page here.