Friday, June 6, 2008

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

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

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Anti-intellectual Presidency: The Decline of Presidential Rhetoric from George Washington to George W. Bush, and reported the following:

Democrats have harped about how Bush allegedly misled the nation with his 2003 State of the Union address, but what is interesting for our purposes is why their criticisms have had little traction. Legitimate or not, contemporary presidents, operating in a thicker and delegated speechwriting environment, are no longer held fully responsible for their public utterances—not even for a misstatement in the most important speech a president gives every year. Thus, the merry-go-round of blame shifting allowed fellow partisans to dismiss Bush’s infraction. House majority leader Tom DeLay (R-TX) described the misstatement as “one little flaw.” The error was trivial because it was a result of human error, not malicious intent. Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) described the issue as “nothing but an absurd, media-driven, diversionary tactic.” These partisan defenses of the president appeared plausible only because it is now public knowledge that presidential speeches are collaboratively drafted and the president cannot be wholly accountable for his public (mis)statements.

On page 98 of the book (page 99 consists of a single concluding paragraph to Chapter 5), I probe the institutional basis of presidential “dumbing down,” pinning the blame on the delegated speechwriting environment which has allowed presidents to pass the buck down the writing and vetting chain when they utter something untoward. Such was, notoriously, the case when President Bush made misleading clams about Iraq obtaining uranium from Niger in his 2003 State of the Union address. Incredibly, Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet took the fall for his failure to vet the speech even though barely anyone in Washington doubted that President Bush and his Vice President knew exactly what they were doing: craft a statement ambiguous enough to mislead but not erroneous enough to be accused of lying. Bush got away with this rhetorical sleight of hand only because the pre-existing institutional arrangement gave him an out: in an era when delegated speechwriting has become a matter of course, it is not the president but his minions who are to be blamed for his rhetorical infractions.

The page 98 test passes muster in my case because the page fortuitously addresses a central contemporary instantiation of the serious costs assumed by a republic that treats words with cynicism and disrespect. In 2003, no one took on the president for disingenuously passing blame on to Tenet precisely because public address in our nation and in our time has become “mere rhetoric.” Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald had to go through the circuitous and ultimately fruitless route that ended with the commutation of Scooter Libby’s sentence when in a different, perhaps ideal, but certainly simpler world, a president would simply be taken to task for his words.
Read an excerpt from The Anti-intellectual Presidency, and learn more about the book and author at Elvin Lim's website and his blog.

--Marshal Zeringue