June 23, 2008

Shouldn't Presidents Actually Be Presidential?

So, I was reading this recent piece in New York Magazine (every day, very informative and entertaining, I recommend it to everybody) about Barack Obama's speech-giving prowess, and how his upcoming speech at the Democratic National Convention is uber-important and so on.

The piece highlights the fact that Obama's a bit of a throwback (way back) to a time when hearing a candidate speak was the only way of getting to know anything about a man, his character, and his policies; a time when people were actually capable of sitting through an entire speech without crumbling into ADD-related convulsions and demanding short, catchy, rhyming phrases.

The whole thing set me to a-thinkin'...

Why is it such a detriment, as a presidential candidate in 21st-century America, to have an expansive vocabulary, be clearly educated and be well-spoken? Why, if you're able to deliver soul-stirring, rousing speeches, is your ability to actually carry out ideas you speak about immediately questioned? Why does it make you more of a "doer" (or is it "Decider"?) if you talk like some down-home, country-bumpkin retard???

But I digress...

What stuck out to me most from the piece -- although it was hardly surprising -- were the facts about the shortening of presidential speeches and addresses:
Since 1913, the length of the average presidential sentence has fallen from 35 words to 22. Between Nixon and the second Bush, the average presidential sound bite shrank from 42 seconds to 7. Today’s State of the Unions inspire roughly 30 seconds of applause for every 60 seconds of speech. Although it’s tempting to blame the sorry state of things on the current malapropist-in-chief, Bush is only the latest flower (though, obviously, a particularly striking one) on a very deep weed. Our most brilliant presidents, Lim says, often work hard to seem publicly dumb in order to avoid the stain of elitism...

Now, we've all read and I've definitely lamented plenty the fact that America's national attention span has shrunk to terrifyingly low levels in recent years. Blame whoever/whatever you want -- TV, video games, the internet, etc. -- it's a plain fact. Even when somebody important says something -- say, the man elected to be the leader of the country -- it has to be boiled down to something short and easy to remember.

This really speaks, of course, to a greater problem in our society: the fact that, on the whole, we've seemingly mentally devolved to the point where learning and reasoning have become secondary endeavors. Why take the time to read through a news piece when I can just read the short talking points provided at the top of the article (thank you, CNN.com) and have all this extra time to watch American Idol???

We're falling hard on the list of global literacy and overall education ranks, and the past-time of reading a book is a rarity to behold nowadays (unless you're on the subway here in NYC, but a lot those of people might just be reading to avoid looking at the shirtless, homeless guy across from them). Rather than just face a future where this kind of thing is reciprocated, over and over again, why don't we take a shot at trying something new? I'm not saying we need to institute a complete cultural and educational renaissance, but let's at least be willing to elect a president who can pronounce the word "nuclear."


On a quick, and very sad, note: I will very much miss the great, genius comedy work of George Carlin. Not only was he very inspirational to me in terms of his sense of humor and his brazen opposition to authority and conformity, but he was a true master of the English language. I loved that his comedy routines always delved deep into the nuances and misunderstandings of the words and phrases we use everyday. As a college English major, and someone who loves writing and reading as an enrichment of everyday life, it was amazing to see someone analyze seemingly insignificant turns of phrase to such a brilliant degree. The world is a much less funny place without him.

RIP George Carlin (1937-2008)

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