How Far We Have Fallen

by Dave Schuler on February 14, 2013

When I read the first modern State of the Union message and compare it with those of recent memory, it makes me weep.

{ 37 comments… read them below or add one }

sam February 14, 2013 at 2:44 pm

FDR didn’t have a member of the opposite party shout out that he was liar during his speech, either. Coarser speeches, coarser audiences, I guess.

Mike February 14, 2013 at 3:29 pm

Maybe FDR wasn’t a craven liar only popular with craven liars, who shill for him and defend him no matter what, like the brainless cult members they are.

Drew February 14, 2013 at 4:23 pm

But he does lie, sam. Right through his teeth.

Steve Verdon February 14, 2013 at 4:27 pm

But he does lie, sam. Right through his teeth.

Well he is a politician, how can there be any doubt?

Icepick February 14, 2013 at 5:17 pm

FDR didn’t have a member of the opposite party shout out that he was liar during his speech, either. Coarser speeches, coarser audiences, I guess.

The behavior of the audience shouldn’t have any effect on the speech itself – the speeches are written ahead of time. The speeches are just bad. They’re getting worse every year but they’ve been bad for a while now. And they’re not coarse, either, they’re just – irrelevant to describing the state of the union. They merely let the President mouth off about what he wants to do, and increasingly most of the things mentioned aren’t even taken seriously by the man making the noise from the podium.

Icepick February 14, 2013 at 5:31 pm

About the only thing worse than the SotU these days is the response from the opposition party. It’s come to this:

SotU as delivered by President*: Here’s a laundry list of things I want to spend non-existent public funds on; here are some people in the audience who illustrate some stupid point I’m trying to make to cover myself in their blood/glory and pretend that I, amoral wretch that I am, have the moral high ground on some issue that none of us in Washington really give a shit about; and “God bless America.”

Opposition* response: We are deeply saddened that the president has taken this opportunity to fuck us like a bitch, and to Hell with him too; “God bless America.”

* Irrespective of party affiliation

If we’re really lucky something interesting happens, like someone calling the President a liar, or the President telling the Supreme Court they’re better do what he says or else, or someone takes an inopportune drink of water.

At no point do any of the people involved actually make real comments on the state of the union save by accident or expediency, and in decades hence no one save historians will even have the stomach to read or listen to these things. I predict that historians will become meaner over time for having to study this crap closely.

Icepick February 14, 2013 at 5:36 pm

Oh Lord, now it’s becoming clear: Rahmbo wants to be President. That’s all America needs is even more Chicagoization.

Incidentally, in my mythical constitution the President will be required to deliver a written State of the Union to Congress every year – and will be prohibited from delivering it as a speech. If he does so it will be considered a high crime punishable by immediate removal from office and being drawn and quartered as public spectacle during the next Super Bowl halftime show – by the AB Clydesdale team, of course. (My constitution will also call for breaking up Inbev into its pre-merger parts. American beer companies for Americans, dammit!)

TastyBits February 14, 2013 at 5:37 pm

Thomas Jefferson had a VP that took care of business. Prissy VP, prissy President, prissy supports, it’s time to put on the big boy pants and to stop whining.

Dave Schuler February 14, 2013 at 6:42 pm

Rahmbo wants to be President.

You’ve just figured that out? It’s been obvious for nearly a decade.

Icepick February 14, 2013 at 6:56 pm

I thought he wanted to be Speaker of the House.

steve February 14, 2013 at 8:55 pm

Speeches are now tailored for TV. That means they have to be at an eighth grade level.

Steve

Dave Schuler February 15, 2013 at 7:56 am

Speeches are now tailored for TV. That means they have to be at an eighth grade level.

I don’t think that holds water, steve. Were speeches “tailored for TV” twenty or thirty years ago? They had significantly larger viewerships then. FDR’s “fireside chats” were listened to by 80% of adult Americans on the radio. Despite their style and content they were without question more effective than today’s speeches.

I think there’s a better argument, one I’ve made before, that today’s high school or even college education are the equivalent of the grade school education of 70 or 80 years ago, at least in reading and comprehension.

It also doesn’t explain the “wish list” that modern SOTUs have become. Note how Roosevelt, rather than listing policy proposals, enunciates his vision. To enunciate a vision, you’ve got to have one.

michael reynolds February 15, 2013 at 9:23 am

I think there’s a better argument, one I’ve made before, that today’s high school or even college education are the equivalent of the grade school education of 70 or 80 years ago, at least in reading and comprehension.

This may be true somewhere, but it sure isn’t true at my son’s high school. My 10th grade was a sad joke compared to his. He works his ass off. His math and science classes make mine look like ridiculous. Not to mention the fact that he works on projects that were simply impossible back then. For example, he’s the front end developer of his school’s online newspaper, creating it from the ground up, gratis, over the summer between 9th and 10th grade. http://redwoodbark.org/

I think there may be a touch of get-off-my-lawn curmudgeon in that assumption.

PD Shaw February 15, 2013 at 9:25 am

Average word counts in spoken SOTU addresses

FDR: 3563 avg.
Reagan: 4596 avg.
Clinton: 7426 avg.
Obama: 7004 avg.

http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/sou_words.php

Dave Schuler February 15, 2013 at 9:37 am

Michael, everything you listed was math, science, or tech. Unless improved education in math, science, or tech has some way of improving people’s ability to understand the spoken word, I would say that the standards of education have declined, at least as they relate to comprehension. The “old, dead white guys” may not seem relevant to today’s students or educators but they’re relevant to being truly educated.

I’ve touched on this subject repeatedly here under the heading of “visualcy”. My take is that understanding of the spoken word and even the written word is declining in favor of pictures. Graphs, charts, movies, cartoons. As I’ve written pretty extensively, that has implications for cognitive development that many people might find pretty surprising.

PD brings up a good point. Why the great length? Other than the TR issue of “wanting to be the bride at every wedding, the baby at every christening, and the corpse at every funeral”? How about this for an explanation? Today’s politicians, instead of saying what they’re for, are presenting long lists of policies, most of which will never see the light of day again, as signals of what they’re for. Symbolic expression rather than direct expression.

Dave Schuler February 15, 2013 at 9:48 am

Another possibility: length is a symbolic way of conveying intelligence to the target audience.

PD Shaw February 15, 2013 at 9:51 am

Average grade level of SOTU addresses (Flesch-Kincaid method):

FDR: 12.5 grade
Reagan: 10.3 grade
Clinton: 9.5 grade
Obama: 8.4 grade

http://blog.lib.umn.edu/cspg/smartpolitics/2012/01/my_message_is_simple_obamas_so.php

I don’t agree with Dave that reading education is getting worse. For one thing, the Flynn effect suggests the opposite. Longer speeches require simpler sentence structures would be one explanation.

PD Shaw February 15, 2013 at 10:01 am

The old guys may also have had oratory classes in prep school and college, which I think is probably less common these days. Not simply speaking or being able to give a presentation, but being able to recite classical verse for comprehension.

Steve Verdon February 15, 2013 at 11:19 am

Technically, wasn’t it Woodrow Wilson who revived delivering the President’s annual message to Congress in person, prior to that it was a written letter read by the clerk to the Congress? Granted the name ‘State of the Union’ was first used for FDR’s 1934 speech, but it was pretty much the same thing Wilson was doing. Wilson of course, was a complete piece of shit and his revival of delivering the President’s address to Congress is an extension of his beliefs in an imperial presidency.

steve February 15, 2013 at 11:24 am

I think reading education has changed. They include much more modern literature. Kids have to learn modern slang and tech talk. I still think TV is a big influence. 30-40 years ago, TV just covered the speeches that were given by the POTUS. Now, the speeches are scripted for TV, and the lowest common denominator. On policy, I think any POTUS who gets up now and does the vision thing gets castigated by the press and the opposition the next day for not offering specifics.

Steve

PD Shaw February 15, 2013 at 11:52 am

Steve V: Washington and Adams gave a speech on the state of the union; Jefferson thought the practice inappropriately regal and began the practice of sending them in writing, which continued until as you note Wilson decided he liked regal. Harding spoke twice and Coolidge spoke once (first time broadcast on radio) and then the practice reverted to writing until FDR’s first State of the Union.

To me Coolidge’s single address was the game-changer. Wilson’s audience was Congress. With radio, it was the first time that the audience might be the American people. Whether Coolidge took advantage of that reality like FDR did, I don’t know; I suspect not.

PD Shaw February 15, 2013 at 12:01 pm

My link on average length of the SOTU in words, also lists the average length in time, going back to 1966:

Nixon: avg. 0:35:26
Reagan: avg. 0:40:00
Clinton: avg. 1:14:51
Obama: avg. 1:03:52

Attention spans must be getting longer. ;)

Steve Verdon February 15, 2013 at 12:13 pm

Coolidge was a pretty boring president from what I can tell…which is probably why he often ranks so low. He seemed content to preside over peace and prosperity…to be a great president you have to get thousands killed in pointless violence or try to seize vast swaths of the economy.

michael reynolds February 15, 2013 at 12:32 pm

Dave:

I am intrigued by your visualcy theory, and I think there’s something to it. I’m not sure it’s school-driven. Jake’s reading list for 10th grade English (not AP I don’t think) this year so far has been Romeo and Juliet, Lord of the Flies, Catcher in the Rye, Animal Farm and Macbeth. (Those are what I recall, anyway, there may be more.) That seems pretty familiar to me, although our reading list may have been different in some detail.

I’m less sympathetic to much of what was the canon for us back in the old days. Nathaniel Hawthorne (dead white guy) and George Eliot (dead white woman) nearly killed reading for me. Force-feeding classics – many of them awful — is now seen as doing more harm than good, and I tend to agree. Scarlet Letter sucks at any age, but ramming it down a 9th grader’s throat is pointless at best, unless the lesson you’re teaching is that reading is a miserable pastime.

I wonder if visualcy is less about subtraction and more about addition. We have a lot more pictures in our lives. I see it as allowing a more complete picture (heh) and requiring a different processing capability. When I do presentations at schools I use a lot of visuals – pix, video, etc… It forces me to think differently when doing that kind of story-telling, but it’s not a worse way of thinking, nor does it mean I can’t write straight prose. It’s an additional skill.

michael reynolds February 15, 2013 at 12:35 pm

Steve V:

It is hard to think of a “great” man who didn’t manage to rack up an impressive body count. Martin Luther King? Nelson Mandela? Even Gandhi filled a few graveyards, intentionally or not.

Tom Strong February 15, 2013 at 12:59 pm

As someone who is probably on the young side of this crowd, I think Dave is correct. A little over 20 years ago I read the exact same books Michael’s son is reading now – but for me that was in 7th-9th grade. And I suspect, from other things you’ve said about him, that he’s smarter than I was at the same age; certainly a lot more disciplined & self-directed.

The problem with the rejection of “the canon” is that it also meant rejecting a lot of the linguistic roots of the language we all still speak, and that has had its cost for education. Nor do I think we should assume that returning to the ideal of a canon would necessarily mean rejecting modern-day pluralism, which I certainly think is very important. There’s room enough for the old and the new.

michael reynolds February 15, 2013 at 2:03 pm

Tom:

Yeah, I have no beef with the basic idea of a canon. And I would reject the notion that it has to be gender or race balanced, though there are more than enough legitimate women and minority writers. I do think a lot of the old canon is crap, looked at objectively, or foisted on kids at a point where it will do more harm than good.

The problem with a canon is often the way its taught. If you’re going to read Euripides, let’s follow it up with some Shakespeare and some Tennessee Williams and some Shaw and Lorraine Hansbury and some Wendy Wasserstein and even some Mamet, (though he’s lost his marbles.) It can’t become a case of “Every play should be The Trojan Women.” It can’t become a straitjacket for the language or the form.

Too often a canon becomes an excuse for a version of idolatry, and an aid to snobbery and exclusion. A more small ‘d’ democratic canon, with less of a chronological obsession would be fine.

PD Shaw February 15, 2013 at 2:22 pm

If I remember correctly, (class of 86 here), we read Romeo & Juliet in 9th grade, and Catcher in the Rye in 11th grade. Don’t recall being assigned the others. As far as I could tell, what we read each year wasn’t based upon degree of difficulty. 9th and 10th grade literature was whatever our teacher liked. 11th grade was an American lit survey. 12th grade an English lit survey. We read Huck Finn in 10th grade because the teacher loved it; he also loved To Kill a Mocking Bird enough to name his daughter Scout, so we read that as well. When we got to the American survey course the next year, Mark Twain’s “spot” was occupied by a short story, perhaps “The Celebrated Jumping Frog.”

I think my kids (both under 12) are learning in a much more pro-reading environment than I did, in the sense that they are encouraged to read a lot without necessarily much in terms of mandates as to what they read. Read what you like. Plus, children’s literature has improved a lot since the 70s in terms of writing that appeals to kids and not having moralization as a central function (though sometimes hidden). I also recall grade school in the 70s reading short stories in text books that had “social relevance” as an underlying principle, which meant a suburban Midwestern youth like myself had to read a lot of boring slice of life stories about life in the Bronx. As in socially relevant to someone else.

Drew February 15, 2013 at 3:31 pm

I think you guys are on the wrong, and far too charitable, path wrt the SOTU.

Leon Panetta has finally come clean that he knew immediately Benghazi was a terrorist attack. The administration for days undertook a cover up, now almost complete with the help of the complicit media. It is also clear Obama was playing with his pud the whole time.

This isn’t about intelligence, its about politics and mendacity and a sloppy and apathetic public more interested in watching the Wives of New Jersey and getting a government check. The Democrats have figured this out.

PD Shaw February 15, 2013 at 4:44 pm

One other change to consider is the rise of the speechwriter group. I know Lincoln wrote all of his speeches, worried over details and word choice, and sought input from his cabinet on speeches. FDR and Ike had speechwriters, but my impression is that they were stil the primary writers. And then we move to JFK and Ted Sorenson, one of the best speechwriters, and pass on to Chris Matthews and David Frum, and rivalrous groups of speechwriters that Obama apparently doesn’t even respect.

The benefit of the President writing his own speeches or being the primary speech-writer include (1) succinctness as the President’s time is valuable. (2) The more cooks, the more ingredients. (3) A professional speechwriter may avoid phrases which he fears the POTUS might stumble over, while a POTUS who has worked long on a speech may be much more comfortable with more complex structures. There is also the risk that the speechwriter will be a political appointee, chosen for command of policy or politics.

michael reynolds February 15, 2013 at 7:22 pm

PD:

That is a very thought-provoking suggestion. A speech-writer is a bit like a ghostwriter who has to work with someone else’s ideas, vocabulary, cadence and tone. That automatically imposes restraints.

Then you get the fact that every department of the executive branch has to get involved. Too many cooks, too many writers. It becomes a committee job and we all know how well committees work.

steve February 15, 2013 at 8:02 pm

“Leon Panetta has finally come clean that he knew immediately Benghazi was a terrorist attack. The administration for days undertook a cover up”

Come up for air Drew. I think I have read on this as much as anyone. No one has found a cover up. If you had ever spent some time in a third world country, you would realize how difficult it is to investigate anything that happens. Also, the CIA’s involvement at the site makes everything murky.

Steve

steve February 15, 2013 at 8:08 pm

@PD- I wonder if the prevalence of AP classes has changed things? I know my son was reading pretty advanced stuff in lower grades. He was in AP classes. I dont know what non-AP classes were reading. He also had a very ambitious required summer reading program. We werent required to read anything during the summer when I was in school.

One thing which might really be different is having things to do for entertainment besides read books. If you were nerdish in the era before computers, you read books. Now, kids can read books, or go on the computer.

Steve

michael reynolds February 15, 2013 at 8:35 pm

steve:

A lot has changed in what kids read for entertainment, too. When I was a kid in middle school I might read Asimov. Now a kid might read JK Rowling or Daniel Kraus or Daniel Handler or M.T. Anderson. I love Asimov, but he was no prose stylist or particularly good world-builder or plotter. By any standard Rowling is better. Ditto Heinlein, and a lot of the guys we idolized. They were what we had, and they existed in a market that was pretty sparse so there wasn’t a lot to compare them with. In retrospect there’s a lot that makes you wince. Arthur C. Clarke was a brilliant guy, but characters? Dialog? The man used a lot of cardboard.

sam February 16, 2013 at 7:08 am

“In retrospect there’s a lot that makes you wince. Arthur C. Clarke was a brilliant guy, but characters? Dialog? The man used a lot of cardboard.”

Perhaps, but shouldn’t the ‘in retrospect’ temper that criticism? It’s not like 15-year-olds are going to dive into The Death of Virgil. Clarke’s books, and Azimov’s and Heinlein’s were pump-priming, for me anyway.

Dave Schuler February 16, 2013 at 7:52 am

We’re getting a bit far afield so I probably should devote a post to this subject. We should compare juveniles/young adult fiction to juvenile/young adult fiction and adult fiction to adult fiction.

The heyday of both Heinlein’s and Asimov’s juveniles was in the early fifties, Heinlein with books like Red Planet or Destination Moon, Asimov with the Lucky Starr books (written under the pseudonym of ‘Paul French’). I agree that the writing and plotting of these is not as good as J. K. Rowlings. J. K. Rowlings had fifty years of juvenile fiction to look to for standards.

However, these books were high adventure. At least for my taste they’re better for that than anything before or since. The comparison for these books isn’t with J. K. Rowlings. It’s with Tom Swift.

To the best of my knowledge Arthur C. Clarke wrote no juvenile science fiction. Whatever his lacks, he doesn’t belong in the discussion.

If we’re extending the discussion to adult science fiction, perhaps we should consider the real stylists: Ray Bradbury, Theodore Sturgeon, Cordwainer Smith. Later Ursula LeGuin, Samuel R. Delany, Roger Zelazny, or Gene Wolfe.

Andy February 17, 2013 at 9:22 am

I don’t see any connection between reading comprehension generally and SOTU speeches. I think PD is correct that the purpose and process of the “event” is different now. Today you have a group of writers with access to lots of focus-group, demographic and polling data. They can craft a speech tailored to targeted demographics and in the process all the things that make a great speech great are missing. They have to cram so much in that it becomes simplistic, long and boring.

As far as reading generally, I think Dave is partly right about visualcy. But I don’t think the old ways were superior. Back then, reading and listening were the only game in town when it came to learning abstract knowledge. Today there are many more modes and methods of learning and so it’s not surprising that reading isn’t as important a skill as it once was (although it’s still very important). I see that trend as inevitable.

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