http://www.nytimes.com/2000/10/16/business/media-talk-why-the-mind-shrivels-for-the-body-politic.htmlMEDIA TALK; Why the Mind Shrivels for the Body Politic
By DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK
The New York Times
October 16, 2000
Does the dialogue of the presidential debates seem more juvenile than eloquent?
American political discourse has grown more simplistic for decades, at least according to the Flesch-Kincaid reading-level formula, a gauge widely used by publishers and educators for evaluating the difficulty of a text, according to the length of its words and the complexity of its sentences.
It turns out that Vice President Al Gore's statements in the first debate in Boston a couple of weeks ago read at a level roughly appropriate to an eighth-grader. Gov. George W. Bush spoke at a level almost a grade below. Each candidate's speech fell half a grade level in the second debate last week.
Robert Beard, linguistics professor emeritus at Bucknell and chief linguistics officer of the language information Internet company yourDictionary.com, evaluated the transcripts of the debates using Flesch-Kincaid software now installed in many word-processing programs.
He said that in the Lincoln-Douglas debates, Stephen A. Douglas's speeches tested at nearly a 12th-grade reading level, and Abraham Lincoln's just above 11th grade. In the first televised presidential debate, in 1960, John F. Kennedy spoke at nearly a 10th-grade level and Richard M. Nixon just above 10th grade. But during the 1996 presidential election debates, Bill Clinton spoke at a level suitable for eighth-graders, and Bob Dole at a level right for the sixth grade.
The hands-down winner for complex talk in the current campaign is Ralph Nader, of the Green Party, who hit the 12th-grade reading level in a recent television appearance.
Speaking at a low reading level is in some ways a measure of success for a politician in an age of the mass media, since less-challenging usage is accessible to more of the electorate. ''The lower reading level shows they are more interested in people who are going to vote than in history and posterity,'' Professor Beard said. ''You wouldn't simplify your speech to impress intellectuals or to appear statesmanlike.''
Franklin D. Roosevelt, for example, sought the declaration of war against Japan in 1941 at a comparatively erudite 12th-grade level, he noted.
The principal candidates this year conduct their debates at a level only slightly below that of the pundits who dissect their words, Professor Beard said. The transcript of a recent ''Meet the Press'' program read at a level that might be somewhat challenging for an eighth-grader, and the contentious ''McLaughlin Group'' at a level appropriate to the ninth grade. This article reads at about the 12th-grade level.