March 07, 2003
On a Clear Day

As a person who works with language, I found the president's words last night something to ponder. In fact, the way he delivered his message was more telling than his actual content.

For instance, he stays on message with almost hypnotic accuracy, with exception of that little tangent about prayer. In that respect, he's a PR person's dream.

Even more interesting was the kind of language he used. Short words. Short sentences. Repetition, repetition, repetition. Avoids using "war" when the euphemism "disarm" can do, as if it was just a matter of wrenching a fork away from someone. Cagy juxtaposition--has Iraq aided Al Queda or just "Al Queda-like" groups? Maybe it doesn't matter, because if you say it enough, people start to believe it, even if it has no basis in reality. Remember the poll that said that most respondents believed that some or all of the 9/11 hijackers were Iraqi citizens?(Correct answer: none were from Iraq, most were from Saudi Arabia.)

It its way, it was masterful.

The same qualities that made it an ostensible success, though, also made me uncomfortable and a little sad.

Today I went back and looked at the Fog Index, a tool that is sometimes used to measure how difficult prose is to understand. (Yes, I know the spoken word is a little different, but the president isn't cranking out much writing these days that I can find.) I used to have an application that ran the Fog index for everything I wrote, but there are ways to figure it out yourself.

Find the average number of words you use per sentence. Take a fair sample of 5 to 8 sentences. Count clearly independent clauses as separate sentences. Example: "By and by I ran; I jumped; I hid." This counts as three sentences. Calculate the percentage of words that are three syllables or more. Don't count proper names. Don't count verbs that make three syllables or adding -es or -ed. Add these two figures. Example: if your average number of words per sentence was was 15, and the percentage of words three syllables or more was 12%, you would add 15 and 12 to get 27. Multiply that sum by 0.4. The resulting number is your Fog Index, a rough measure of how many words of schooling it would take to understand what you have written. In our example, multiplying 27 by 0.4 equals a Fog Index of 10.8. The Bible, Shakespeare, Mark Twain, and TV Guide all have Fog Indexes of about 6. Time, Newsweek, and the Wall St. Journal average about 11. If you find your Index soaring into the teens (or higher!) --- beware --- you've lost most of your audience in the dense fog.

I did the calculations on this random selection from last nights' comments. The Fog index: 5.2, which means they could be understood by the average fifth-grader.

I think first of all, it's hard to envision more terror on America than September the 11th, 2001. We did nothing to provoke that terrorist attack. It came upon us, because there's an enemy which hates America. They hate what we stand for. We love freedom, and we're not changing. And therefore, so long as there's a terrorist network like al Qaeda and others willing to fund them, finance them, equip them, we're at war. You know, obviously I thought long and hard about the issue of troops. I think about it all the time. It is my responsibility to commit the troops. I believe we'll prevail. I know we'll prevail. And out of that disarmament of Saddam will come a better world, particularly for the people who live in Iraq. This is a society, Ron, who -- which has been decimated by his murderous ways, his torture. He doesn't allow dissent. He doesn't believe in the values we believe in. I believe this society, the Iraqi society can develop in a much better way. I think of the risks. I've calculated the costs of inaction versus the cost of action, and I'm firmly convinced that if we have to, we will act in the name of peace and in the name of freedom.

For comparison, I also dug up some Clinton languge. Here he is in what was admittedly not his finest hour. The Fog index is 10.4, which means it could be understood by the average 10th-grader.

I know that my public comments and my silence about this matter gave a false impression. I misled people, including even my wife. I deeply regret that. I can only tell you I was motivated by many factors. First, by a desire to protect myself from the embarrassment of my own conduct. I was also very concerned about protecting my family. The fact that these questions were being asked in a politically inspired lawsuit, which has since been dismissed, was a consideration, too. In addition, I had real and serious concerns about an independent counsel investigation that began with private business dealings 20 years ago, dealings I might add about which an independent federal agency found no evidence of any wrongdoing by me or my wife over two years ago. The independent counsel investigation moved on to my staff and friends, then into my private life. And now the investigation itself is under investigation. This has gone on too long, cost too much and hurt too many innocent people. Now, this matter is between me, the two people I love most -- my wife and our daughter -- and our God. I must put it right, and I am prepared to do whatever it takes to do so.

What does it mean that the nation's leader can only talk about a war that could potentially kill many innocent people in the language of a fifth-grader? I don't know the answer. E. says it has to do with lowered expectations. If you don't expect people to be as smart as you are, you talk down to them.

Here's a fun fact: while everything around us gets dumber, we get more educated (or, at least, we spend more time in school). According to the US census, "In 2000, 84 percent of American adults age 25 and over had at least completed high school and 26 percent had a bachelor's degree or higher, both all-time highs."

The president presides over a nation that is better educated than ever. But we get less and less substance from our leaders.

Posted at March 07, 2003 09:36 PM

As a writer, language fancier, and PR person, I LOVE this post.

I love that you've raised the rapid fire speech pattern, the short, simple sentences, the coloquialisms--which separately could maybe be attributed to "that's just the way he is--it's where he's from" or "it's not what he says, it's the character of his actions." Bull doodoo. These tactics are just that, purposeful tactics, and smarter than even he knows (because he still ain't writing his own stuff--we all know that).

I wonder how smart we've become as a nation that these patented, patterned, insidious messages continue to ring true for so many. It's linguistically and intellectually puzzling.

His is the most powerful office on the planet. He's tailoring his messages simply and artistically so that they are too simple to deconstruct--and at the same time he's implanting conservative messages in the minds of children who will one day vote. Good messaging. Good PR. Terrifying usage.

thanks for a great post.

Posted by: jeneane on March 7, 2003 11:19 PM

Margie and I both thought that W. was on sedatives during his prepared remarks... there was no sign of brainwave activity at all. I tuned out during the Q&A section (the press questions were simply abusive to the Fog Index) and therefore missed most of the return to typical W. smirking arrogance.

Posted by: Sean on March 10, 2003 09:15 AM

Maureen Dowd called him the "Xanax president" yesterday, and you might agree, Grumpy Sean.

J, it's interesting that you think part of the plan is to implant conservative messages in the minds of children. This hadn't occurred to me, although I can't help hoping the monotony would have the opposite effect! (Maybe he should have put on a cardigan and taken off his shoes...)

Posted by: Anne on March 10, 2003 05:07 PM
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