And to the C students, I say, you, too, can be president of the United States.
-- President Bush,
2001 commencement address,
First Clinton lowered our moral standards, now Bush is lowering our academic standards.
-- Jay Leno, after Bush's
Yale commencement address
Ouch, that's unfair! Funny, but unfair. Bush is wily like a fox -- he knows that one way to endear himself to all those C students out there is to make himself seem like one of them. But when it comes to his rhetorical style, he's right in line with modern Oval Office standards, argues Elvin T. Lim, a political scientist at the University of Tulsa.
According to Lim, virtually every U.S. president since George Washington has shown a greater tendency than his predecessors to oversimplify, engage in sloganeering or otherwise trivialize the language and content of his speeches to the American people.
"The urge to dumb down has been a rare constant in the two hundred year history of the presidency, persisting in spite of the different personalities and ideologies of the 43 men who have held the office, the several institutional adaptations of the presidency in secular time and even the radically differing tectonics of political time that different incumbents have confronted," Lim concluded in a chapter from his forthcoming book on presidential speechmaking.
Lim studies the evolution of presidential rhetoric. For this project, he created a computer file that contained all 214 State of the Union speeches between 1790 and 2003 and all 54 inaugural addresses between 1789 and 2001. He also included all presidential documents -- written, spoken and informal correspondence -- publicly available for each president since Herbert Hoover. Then he used a sophisticated computer program that measured the complexity and sophistication of the language used in those speeches and written communications, in part by measuring word and sentence lengths but ignoring phraseology and syntax, which change over the years.
Whatever the medium, he found that successive presidents used shorter and shorter sentences and smaller words to express increasingly simple ideas. The State of the Union speech has been transformed into little more than "a 'laundry list' of sound-bites" and sloganeering -- long on rhetorical flourishes, but increasingly short on complexity, nuance and substance, Lim claimed.
Well perhaps, professor. But we have some questions. Let's agree that presidential speech has become simpler. But does that necessarily mean presidents have been "dumbing down" their ideas for public consumption? Couldn't they merely be trying to be clearer and less arcane?
Not likely, Lim said. His other research into television scripts, newspaper stories and scholarly articles confirmed that the more sophisticated the ideas, the longer the sentences and words used to convey those thoughts. But to confirm his quantitative analysis, he interviewed 43 presidential speechwriters who, he said, corroborated the pressure they felt from each president or his staff to keep it simple -- too simple, these wordsmiths complained.
As you might expect, the speechwriters had colorful ways of describing their marching orders. Richard Nixon demanded "truck driver language" in his speeches, while Bill Clinton admonished his speechwriters to "make it more talky," Lim learned. But GOP speechwriter Peggy Noonan may have summed it up best. She lamented: "The only organ to which no appeal is made these days -- you might call it America's only under-stimulated organ -- is the brain."
Got a sweet tooth and a penchant for thrills and chills? Watch out. Those are two telltale signs that you might be prone to alcoholism, according to researchers who think they have found a reliable way to predict who may be susceptible to developing drinking problems later in life.
Researchers have known for years that alcoholics seem to be disproportionately attracted to sweets, an indicator they hoped to use to identify potential problem drinkers. No such luck.
While alcoholics were more likely to indulge their sugar cravings than non-alcoholics, people who were fond of sweets weren't any more likely to become alcoholics than people who could just say no to that brownie. That suggested something else -- a co-factor -- that needed to be present along with a fondness for sugary treats in order to trigger problem drinking in susceptible individuals.
Researchers now say they have found the missing link: personality, argues a research team headed by Alexey B. Kampov-Polevoy, a physician at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York.
His team found that people who liked sweets and also scored high in "novelty seeking" on a personality test were five times more likely to have a problem with alcohol or a family history of alcoholism than people who demonstrated either one of those characteristics but not the other.
Taking the two factors together, Kampov-Polevoy and his team were able to successfully classify individuals as problem drinkers two-thirds of the time, they reported in the September issue of the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research. Researchers don't yet know why these factors might be linked to alcoholism -- just that they are closely associated with problem drinking when both are present.
They based their conclusions on a study of 165 individuals who were part of a residential treatment program for alcohol abuse or drug dependence. Each person took a
taste test measuring response to five different concentrations of a sugar solution and also completed a personality questionnaire that measured "novelty seeking," a trait that psychologists claim reflects a person's ability to control harmful behavior.
Among those who preferred sweets, the odds of being an alcoholic increased as novelty-seeking scores rose, Kampov-Polevoy and his team found. Among those who disliked sweets, there was no such correlation.
I am environment-friendly and put safety first. That's why I drive a BMW. You're a status-seeking poseur. That's why you drive a BMW.
Or at least that seems to be the view in Sweden, where a national survey asked adults to rate the importance of safety, engineering characteristics, status and other factors in buying a car.
"Most respondents considered their own concern for status when purchasing a car to be minor in comparison with the status concerns of others, " economists Olof Johansson-Stenman and Peter Martinsson of Sweden's Goteborg University wrote in a recent research paper available online at the university's electronic research archive. "Similarly, most individuals considered themselves to be more environmentally concerned than other people" when buying a car.
According to the poll, everyone rated safety concerns as "very important" or "somewhat important" when considering which car to buy. Environmental concerns were similarly important to nine out of 10 of those interviewed, as were reliability and fuel consumption. Status finished dead last among the nine characteristics tested, with barely one in four respondents saying it was an important consideration for themselves.
But you can guess what happened when these safety-conscious buyers were asked what mattered to "the average Swede": About eight in 10 said snob appeal was important to others.
The findings are based on a survey of 1,300 randomly selected Swedish adults conducted in the spring of 2001.
"People want to see themselves as better than others, implying biased perceptions of others in what is perceived to be a negative direction" -- at least in Sweden, the researchers concluded.