The New York Times and the Guardian have been reading old State of the Union addresses — or, rather, “Annual Message to Congress” messages, as they were known until 1934 — and have discovered that the State of the Union is now both “dumber” and less honest than it once was. Applying the “Flesch Kincaid readability test” to the addresses, the Guardian has ascribed a reading level score to each president. It’s not pretty. On this scale, the worst three presidents, in order, are George H. W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Bill Clinton. The best is James Madison, followed by Martin van Buren, Franklin Pierce, and John Quincy Adams. The line of quality goes depressingly down, leading the Guardian to conclude bluntly that “the linguistic standard of the presidential address has declined.”
So, presumably not unrelatedly, has the honesty. Yesterday, the New York Times published a fascinating piece, which, among other things, tracked the very modern practice of insisting that all is well when it is quite patently not:
That word, strong, has become a ritual element of the annual address to Congress, intoned by Mr. Obama and his predecessors over the last 30 years even when things were not going that well.
“The state of our union has never been stronger,” President George W. Bushsaid in January 2002, immediately after reminding Congress that the nation was at war and the economy was in recession.
Leading up to the address, many politicos made wisecracks that featured President Obama coming out and saying that, well, things are still pretty bad. The joke, obviously, is that he’d never do that. But presidents used to. In one of his less useful contributions, it was Ronald Reagan who killed the tendency. Beforehand, executives could be pretty blunt:
“I must say to you that the state of the union is not good,” President Gerald R. Ford said in 1975, citing high unemployment, slow growth and soaring deficits. He added, “I’ve got bad news, and I don’t expect much, if any, applause.”
In 1961, President John F. Kennedy said, “The present state of our economy is disturbing,” declaring that he spoke in “an hour of national peril and national opportunity.”
No president has ever delivered a more dour assessment than Andrew Johnson in 1867, as the nation wrestled with the Reconstruction of the Southern states: “Candor compels me to declare that at this time there is no union as our fathers understood the term, and as they meant it to be understood by us.”
The New York Times concludes its survey with the words of President Benjamin Harrison, who assured Congress that there was little need for him to describe the state of the union because “every step taken is under the observation of an intelligent and watchful people.” The Guardian’s analysis seems to suggest quite the opposite.