One of Chris Matthews’s guests yesterday evening on MSNBC’s Hardball was Bill Maher, whose political punditry is often sharper than that of the status quo experts — which ties into one of the points Maher himself was making. Asked what he thought of Obama’s major speech Tuesday night on the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and on race in America, Maher said how great it was to witness a speech "for adults and to adults."
He went on: "It’s like reading a book nowadays, Chris. There’s so much writing that’s not really writing. You read a John Grisham book and it’s like just an outline for the script, the movie. And once in a while you read great writing and you go ‘What a pleasure!’"
I’ve seen two forthcoming books that explore this depressing phenomenon of the low level of discourse coming from recent political candidates and presidents. The authors don’t merely blame the politicians, but note the responsibility that Americans bear for these circumstances.
Coming in June from Oxford University Press is Elvin T. Lim’s The Anti-Intellectual Presidency: The Decline of Presidential Rhetoric from George Washington to George W. Bush. Nice cover, above. It’s a data-driven book, carefully researched, and efficiently expressed, with some fascinating graphs that track such telling particulars as the average sentence length in inaugural addresses and speeches from 1790 to 2006, the rise and fall of certain word usages, and the ratios of speaking time to applause time across recent decades. Lim notes that the decline in presidential rhetoric is both "a symptom and a cause." We can’t just blame our politicians (and their speechwriters); evidently they are responding to some sense about their audience’s attention span and willingness to explore nuance.
In Just How Stupid Are We?: Facing the Truth About the American Voter, coming from Basic Books in June, author Rick Shenkman finds that "we, the People" are indeed responsible for the state of U.S. politics. We’ve got this notion in our heads, reinforced by a lot of simpleminded political speeches, that we are an innately wise and rational bunch. The fact is that we are not. Shenkman’s is not a bitter invective by any means. It’s a fascinating, accessible, and optimistic book.
I think (I hope) that these two examinations of the problems mean that the tide may start to turn and that Bill Maher can take heart. Maybe in our future, we’ll come to expect that the speeches of our elected officials will be "great writing." That means we have to see ourselves not just as the politicians’ audience, but as their readers. Okay, so their work won’t knock Grisham off the bestseller list (it’s actually too bad Maher picked Grisham as his example, given Grisham’s political engagement and his work with the Innocence Project). But maybe we’re seeing some harbingers of change.