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Barack Obama's Smart Speech "A More Perfect Union": Did It Reveal Him To Be Too Intellectual To Be President?


Friday, Mar. 21, 2008

By way of disclaimer, I do not have a favored candidate in the 2008 Democratic nomination contest. But I do appreciate the new (or perhaps simply long-forgotten) and higher levels to which Senator Barack Obama is taking political discourse. His historic speech on race this week, for example, was as smart as they come.

There was a time in this country when political debate was actually rather sophisticated, but that was long ago (for as mass media grew, the level of debate went down). Only time will tell, however, if Obama's powerful speech was also politically smart.

Obama Speech Was Frank, Direct, and Intelligent - But Was It Pitched to Too Advanced an Audience?

With his speech addressing race in America, Obama has done something that few politicians are willing to do: speak with compelling intellectual honesty. Rather than fuzzy-up difficult and troubling questions about race, he confronted them directly. Rather than avoiding issues that are typically ignored, he brought them forward for public discussion. Most strikingly, he did this with nuance, great tact, and conspicuous intelligence.

Many commentators were struck by the level of erudition Senator Obama employed in his speech. For example, Newsweek's Howard Fineman asked, "Did the blockheads understand it?" Not wanting to sound elitist, Howard quickly added that of course, everyone is a bit of a blockhead. I do not know if everyone understood the speech or not, but I do know that it is a pleasure to have a candidate running for the highest office in the land who is not only not trying to pretend to be dumb and inarticulate but rather willingly showing he is, in fact, smart as hell.

Obama's "A More Perfect Union" speech was not unlike his insightful and somewhat erudite books - Dreams of My Father and The Audacity of Hope - with one large exception: Relatively few people will read Obama's books but many have been (or may be) exposed to his historic speech.

Computers have made it rather simple to determine the intelligence or grade level of a speech by measuring it with the Flesch-Kincaid test, which is found on the Tools/Options menu of Microsoft Word. This widely-employed measurement device determines the degree of difficulty of the written (and spoken) word.

Enterprising linguists and others have applied the test to a wide variety of material. For instance, the folks at youDictionary have tested the inaugural addresses of presidents. They discovered that no president since Woodrow Wilson has come close to delivering speeches pitched at a 12th grade level. Bush II's first inaugural address was at a 7.5 grade level, which ranked him near Eisenhower's second address (7.5), Nixon's first (7.6), LBJ's only (7.0), and FDR's fourth (8.1). Clinton's two addresses, by contrast, scored at the 9th grade level (9.4 and 8.8 respectively).

I tested Obama's "A More Perfect Union" speech and it scores at a 10.5 grade level, which by current standards is in the stratosphere. But maybe he was being too smart to win the presidency.

Republicans Have Dumbed Down the Presidency

Hillary Clinton - who is every bit Obama's intellectual equal - is increasingly running against his eloquence, and claiming that eloquence is all he has and that he is too inexperienced to be commander-in-chief and solve real-world problems. During and since the Ohio and Texas primaries, I've noticed that Senator Clinton has been showing less and less of her own conspicuous wonkiness and brain-power, a strategy that seems to be working to her advantage.

Senator Clinton's new populism has not become anti-intellectual (yet), but she surely knows that her husband hid his intelligence during his presidential campaigns, playing up his good ole boy roots rather than his Yale/Oxford credentials. Savvy Democrats understand they cannot win the White House by appearing smarter than their GOP opponent.

This is not a cynical observation, but rather a factual one. Republicans have spent the past half century dumbing-down the American presidency, for it has helped them win the White House Colleen Shogan, wearing her political scientist hat, has assembled epigrammatic case studies demonstrating the effectiveness of the anti-intellectualism of Republican presidents Dwight Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush.

For example, when Dwight Eisenhower ran against Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson (in 1952 and 1956), Eisenhower ignored the fact that he had been first in his class at West Point and president of Columbia University. Meanwhile, his surrogates portrayed Stevenson as an "egghead" intellectual, which was untrue but easy to do given Stevenson's remarkably eloquent speaking style. (In fact, Stevenson had flunked out of Harvard Law School, although he later graduated from Northwestern Law School.) In office, too, Eisenhower governed with a "hidden hand," continuing to hide his intelligence.

Reagan was seen as an "amiable dunce," and history is still not sure if his Alzheimer's condition took hold well before he left office. Yet his collected letters demonstrate more thoughtfulness and policy savvy, at least earlier in his life, than many suspected. George Bush reminded Yale students when visiting his alma mater that "to the C students - I say, you, too, can be President of the United States." In contrast, rival John Kerry's campaign (mistakenly it now seems) had taken pains to portray him as highly intelligent - yet Kerry's Yale grades were just as weak as Bush's. The putative GOP nominee for 2008, John McCain, follows in the Republican tradition of anti-intellectualism, as the fifth man from the bottom of his Naval Academy graduating class.

Increasingly, conservatives seek to characterize liberals as latte-drinking, white-wine sipping, Volvo-driving, intellectual elitists with whom no real American would want to spend time, for they are too smug and superior to truly understand others outside their circle. Conservatives may appreciate intelligence but not intellectuals and their kind, and as the Republican Party has become more conservative, its anti-intellectualism has become more pronounced. The reason: It wins elections.

Hopefully Obama Will Not Shift His Strategy toward Playing Dumb

Senator Obama's smart speech on race is true to his campaign theme of "change," for he is departing from the contemporary, Republican-created norm of Forrest Gump presidential politics. Do Americans really want the dumbest candidate answering the phone at three o'clock in the morning? Of course not.

While the correlation between Presidents' successfully leading the nation and their intelligence cannot be easily measured, University of California psychologist Dean Keith Simonton has examined this question in his study "Presidential IQ, Openness, Intellectual Brilliance, and Leadership: Estimates and Correlations for 42 U.S. Chief Executives" (partially available online).

Using complex statistical and analytical tools, Professor Simonton has estimated the IQs of all our presidents. For example, for the last sixteen presidents he estimated (and I have rounded his figures) the following IQs: Wilson (155), Harding (140), Coolidge (142), Hoover (142), F. Roosevelt (151), Truman (140), Eisenhower (145), Kennedy (160), L. Johnson (141), Nixon (143), Ford (140), Carter (157), Reagan (142), G. H. W. Bush (143), Clinton (159), and G. W. Bush (139). With the exception of LBJ, the Democrats have provided the country with much higher wattage than the Republicans. But clearly, none of these men are stupid.

Let's hope that Senator Obama continues to be willing to publicly perform at his intelligence level. Perhaps he will trust voters to realize that the key criterion to serve in the highest office should not be which candidate is the person with whom you would most enjoy having a beer. To the contrary, presidents should not be encouraging C students to continue to earn Cs so they can become president. Presidents should be telling all Americans that we can do better - which is one of the core points in Obama's message.

Anti-intellectual Republican presidents have led this nation into a new age of unreason, as former Vice President Al Gore argued in The Assault on Reason (2007) and more recently, Susan Jacoby has reported in The Age of Unreason (2008). As Senator Obama campaigns, he can truly change America by simply refusing to play dumb. That strategy, if Obama continues it, may turn out to be not only courageous but also wise, for it is very possible that, after so many years, Americans are tired of having their innate intelligence insulted by their presidential candidates.

John W. Dean, a FindLaw columnist, is a former counsel to the president.

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