Much has been made of the fact that according to the Flesch-Kincaid scale, President Obama’s latest State of the Union address peaked at an eighth-grade reading level. Additionally, according to the article that first reported the story, Obama’s addresses have consistently scored in this range. In the past 70 years, only one address, George H.W. Bush’s 1992 offering, has scored lower than any of Obama’s. This led syndicated talk-show host and founding generation proponent Mike Church to publish a brief article comparing Obama’s address with Thomas Jefferson’s first annual message in 1801. The results — and they are not pretty or surprising — are found here. This brilliant work led me to think about how other presidents before 1934 would score, most importantly those from the founding generation and those considered to be unintelligent buffoons by both their contemporaries and the historical establishment.
George Washington is the most important man in American history, and as the first president under the Constitution set several executive precedents. Unfortunately, the quality (and brevity) of an annual message is not one of them. His first annual message to Congress was 828 words long, or about one-quarter the length of Obama’s third address. Regardless, its score on the Gunning Fog index — the “indication of the number of years of formal education that a person requires in order to easily understand the text on the first reading” — is 24.99 and its Flesch-Kincaid level is 22. In other words, according to the Gunning Fog index and the Flesch-Kincaid scale, an individual would need a Ph.D. to understand Washington’s address the first time through, and it would take at least a college degree to read it with little difficulty. The average Gunning Fog score for Washington’s eight annual messages is around 20 and the Flesch-Kincaid is approximately 18. It must be remembered that Washington was virtually homeschooled as a youth. The Gunning Fog for Obama’s third address is 10 and the Flesch-Kincaid is 8.5, but when “we get each other’s backs,” as he so eloquently stated in his address, who cares?