One-Minute Book Reviews

February 10, 2007

Bizarre But True: GWB Writes at a Higher Level Than Thomas Jefferson … An Exposé of the Writing Levels of U.S. Presidents

Filed under: Books,Memoirs,News,Politics,Reading,Writing — 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom @ 7:41 pm

Who wrote at a higher level, Ronald Reagan or Abraham Lincoln? Check the results of a One-Minute Book Reviews survey that calculated their grade levels using the spell-checker on Microsoft Word.

Need a reason to feel good about the direction our country is taking on Presidents’ Day? Try this: George W. Bush can write at a higher level than Thomas Jefferson.

Not long ago, I found that novelist Mitch Albom writes at a third-grade level when I typed part of For One More Day into my computer, then ran the Microsoft Word spell-checker (Nov. 16, 2006, One-Minute Book Reviews). When you do this, you see the Flesch-Kincaid grade level at the bottom of the column of numbers that appears on your screen.

So I wondered: Could any of our presidents write at a higher level than a No. 1 best-selling novelist? I used Microsoft Word to calculate the reading levels of the presidents’ books, if these were easily available, and their best-known speeches if not. Here are the results:

John F. Kennedy, Profiles in Courage Grade 12
Jimmy Carter, Palestine: Peace, Not Apartheid Grade 12
Franklin D. Roosevelt, “Four Freedoms” Speech Grade 11.2
Ronald Reagan, An American Life Grade 11.1
Dwight Eisenhower, Crusade in Europe Grade 11.1
Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address Grade 10.9
George W. Bush, A Charge to Keep Grade 10.8
Bill Clinton, My Life Grade 8.2
Gerald Ford, A Time to Heal Grade 8.1
Lyndon B. Johnson “Why Are We in Vietnam?” Speech Grade 7.3
Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Abigail Adams,
July 1, 1787 Grade 5.3

I entered 305 words from each book, beginning on page 24, for reasons explained in the review of For One More Day, archived in the “Novels” category on this blog: The first chapter of a book often doesn’t represent the whole. A typical book chapter has about 20 pages, so I started on page 24. And because a paragraph or two may not represent the whole, either, I entered 305 words, or more than a page, which usually has about 250–300 words. When I used a speech, I entered the whole speech.

This survey showed that George Bush wrote in A Charge to Keep – what, you’ve forgotten it already? — at a higher level than Thomas Jefferson did in a letter to Abigail Adams, wife of John Adams. Bush also wrote at higher level than Bill Clinton did in My Life and LBJ did in his “Why Are We in Vietnam?” speech at Johns Hopkins University. But Jefferson comes out ahead if you give him credit for writing the Declaration if Independence single-handledly. It’s written at the level of Grade 12.

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.

6 Comments »

  1. Interesting piece Janet. I’m surprised Jefferson came out so low on the letter, maybe he thought since he was writing to a woman he needed to keep it simple;-)I also wonder why Bush came out ahead of Clinton, wouldn’t have guessed that. You have a nice blog and website!

    Comment by bookbabie — February 10, 2007 @ 9:42 pm | Reply

  2. Except that Bush had a ghost writer and the founding fathers didn’t!

    Comment by frecklescassie — February 10, 2007 @ 10:07 pm | Reply

  3. bookbabie — I was surprised about Jefferson, too. It made more sense to me that he got a Grade 12 for the Declaration of Independence (if you give him credit for the whole thing). You could be right that he was “dumbing down” his manner a little for Abigail. It’s also possible that because she was a friend, Jefferson was writing to her in the relaxed and conversational tone that all of us tend to use when we’re writing to people we like, male or female. Something similar might explain why Clinton’s grade level was lower than Bush’s. Clinton writes in a very natural way, as though his readers were his friends, while Bush tends to be stuffier in print… and that makes his writing style “older,” if that makes any sense.

    frecklescassie — Don’t you sympathize with some of Bush’s ghostwriters? They may give him great material. And then he’ll come out with lines like his famous, “I know how hard it is to put food on your family.”

    A thousand thanks to you both for your comments. So many people are away this weekend that I almost didn’t post this …

    Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — February 10, 2007 @ 10:35 pm | Reply

  4. First, a letter to a friend is not, and cannot be compared with any validity to, a work written for publication. Do we write our IM’s at the same reading level we write our blog posts at?

    Second, the person who said “Families is where our nation finds hope, where wings take dream” does not write at a 10th-grade level. His ghostwriters do, just as his (no doubt frustrated) speechwriters do. Kennedy didn’t write “Profiles in Courage”; Ted Sorenson did. Reagan didn’t write “An American Life”; Robert Lindsey did. Ford’s ghostwriter was James Humes. Will North may have ghosted Clinton’s “My Life”. On a guess, I’d say Carter writes his own books (they have all the excitement of his presidency) and it’s known that Eisenhower actually did write “Crusade in Europe”. Those two, plus the Gettysburg Address, are the only ones which actually demonstrate the respective presidents’ writing levels at all (you can’t compare a casual letter to a scholarly book).

    Instead of these joint press conferences they call “debates” nowadays why not put each candidate in a sound-proof, cell-phone-proof room with a topic, a typewriter, and a time limit, and see what they write? Now that would be worth something.

    Comment by Wandering Critic — August 23, 2008 @ 1:53 pm | Reply

  5. Flesch Kincaid isn’t a very reliable text analyzer since it uses sentence length/syntax but ignores vocabulary… I’d be interested to see how they compare when you use this free Dale-Chall analyzer: http://www.interventioncentral.org/htmdocs/tools/okapi/okapi.php

    Comment by Carlja9 — January 27, 2009 @ 2:26 pm | Reply

    • A thousand thanks for the tip. I am a journalist, not a teacher or linguist, so I don’t know all of the good resources that are out there. Your link will be very helpful to me.

      Comment by 1minutebookreviewswordpresscom — January 27, 2009 @ 2:32 pm | Reply


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