Friday, June 06, 2008

Pg. 99: Elvin T. Lim's "The Anti-intellectual Presidency"

The current feature at the Page 99 Test: Elvin T. Lim's The Anti-Intellectual Presidency: The Decline of Presidential Rhetoric from George Washington to George W. Bush.

About the book, from the publisher:
Why has it been so long since an American president has effectively and consistently presented well-crafted, intellectually substantive arguments to the American public? Why have presidential utterances fallen from the rousing speeches of Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, Wilson, and FDR to a series of robotic repetitions of talking points and sixty-second soundbites, largely designed to obfuscate rather than illuminate?

In The Anti-Intellectual Presidency, Elvin Lim draws on interviews with more than 40 presidential speechwriters to investigate this relentless qualitative decline, over the course of 200 years, in our presidents' ability to communicate with the public. Lim argues that the ever-increasing pressure for presidents to manage public opinion and perception has created a "pathology of vacuous rhetoric and imagery" where gesture and appearance matter more than accomplishment and fact. Lim tracks the campaign to simplify presidential discourse through presidential and speechwriting decisions made from the Truman to the present administration, explaining how and why presidents have embraced anti-intellectualism and vague platitudes as a public relations strategy. Lim sees this anti-intellectual stance as a deliberate choice rather than a reflection of presidents' intellectual limitations. Only the smart, he suggests, know how to dumb down. The result, he shows, is a dangerous debasement of our political discourse and a quality of rhetoric which has been described, charitably, as "a linguistic struggle" and, perhaps more accurately, as "dogs barking idiotically through endless nights."

Sharply written and incisively argued, The Anti-Intellectual Presidency sheds new light on the murky depths of presidential oratory, illuminating both the causes and consequences of this substantive impoverishment.
Among the praise for the book:
"Elvin Lim documents a disturbing trend. Presidents are talking more, but their speech is getting less substantive and less informative. Simple declarations have come to substitute for reasoned arguments. Lim's findings ring true, all the more so for their careful empirical grounding and elegant presentation. I know of no book on presidential rhetoric that cuts more directly and effectively to the point."
--Stephen Skowronek, Pelatiah Perit Professor of Political and Social Science, Yale University

"Elvin Lim argues convincingly that politics has been dumbed-down but that enlightened civic conversation is possible if politicians will only try. Lim also believes that the American people want to be stretched intellectually and emotionally. The dark trail he traces therefore ends in a sunburst of hope that I find heartening."
--Roderick P. Hart, Dean Shivers/Cronkite Chair in Communication, College of Communication, University of Texas at Austin

"Lim's presentation of the consequences of the manipulation of language in the political arena is clear and compelling, and will delight grammarians and political aficionados alike."
--Publishers Weekly

"Recent American presidents have dumbed down democratic discourse, Elvin Lim shows in his disturbing new study of presidential leadership. The chief culprits are presidential speechwriters, who prize style over substance and subvert the reasoned articulation of policy. Timely, well written, and highly recommended."
--Jeffrey K. Tulis, author of The Rhetorical Presidency

"That 'Presidents and speechwriters have killed oratory and gone anti-intellectual' will come as no surprise. But why? No scholar has thought more carefully and analyzed more rigorously this historic change in presidential communication with the public. This book will spawn important debates about the meaning and consequences of the 'dumbing down' of presidential rhetoric. It is a tour de force."
--Elizabeth Sanders, Department of Government, Cornell University
Read an excerpt from The Anti-intellectual Presidency, and learn more about the book and author at Elvin Lim's website and his blog.

Elvin T. Lim is Assistant Professor of Government at Wesleyan University.

In addition to The Anti-intellectual Presidency, he is the author of peer-reviewed articles in Political Psychology and Presidential Studies Quarterly. He is a two-time winner of the Sara Norton thesis prize at the University of Oxford, where he took a BA (First Class) in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics, and a Doctor of Philosophy (Phd) in Politics. He is a winner of the the Presidency Research Fellowship and the Founder's Award of the Presidency Research Group of the American Political Science Association. He was previously a Visiting Scholar at the University of Texas at Austin, a Research Fellow at Yale University and Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Tulsa.

The Page 99 Test: The Anti-Intellectual Presidency.

--Marshal Zeringue