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Minnesota Magazine: From the mouths of presidents


From the mouths of presidents

Artist Luke DuBois created Snellen charts representing the words U.S. presidents used most often in their State of the Union addresses. Harry S. Truman’s is above.

A couple years ago, as the 2008 U.S. presidential electioncycle approached, New York City artist Luke Dubois decided his next project would be politically relevant. During a musical gig on the West Coast (he’s also a musician who records his own computer-generated music), Dubois visited the American Presidency Project archives at the University of California–Santa Barbara for inspiration. He wanted to study every State of the Union address delivered by the presidents, from George Washington through George W. Bush.

“I’m interested in political rhetoric used by the presidents,” Dubois explains. Moreover, he adds, “The State of the Union is our only constitutionally mandated piece of political theater.” As he read through the addresses, Dubois noticed that each president used some distinct words more often than others. He wrote a computer program that would sort through the text and eliminate words commonly used in all of the speeches—such as United States, American, Congress— as well as disregard prepositions and articles like of and the.

The result was amazing, according to Dubois, as “the unique words rose to the top.” Dubois then thought of the Snellen charts used by eye doctors to test vision. The charts include 11 rows of letters whose size decreases from the top of the chart to the bottom. (A patient who can read the smallest row without corrective lenses while 20 feet from the chart has 20/20 vision.)

Using the Snellen chart as a template, Dubois arranged the most common words for each president’s combined State of the Union addresses in a similar chart, with the most-used word largest and at the top. The result was “an amazing snapshot of the political zeitgeist of every presidency and what was on their minds—or at least the speechwriters’ minds,” Dubois says.

Abraham Lincoln’s number-one word, for instance, is emancipation. Herbert Hoover’s is unemployment. George Bush’s is terror. The prints of each president’s chart, collectively titled “Hindsight Is Always 20/20,” will be exhibited August 23, 2008, through January 9, 2009, at the Weisman Art Museum. “Dubois’s work has produced some intriguing commentary on the power of rhetoric in a political context,” says Diane Mullin, associate curator. “We’re hoping this ‘eye test,’ with its metaphorical meanings, will provide visitors with insights into current politics and presidential campaigns.”

“When I started making the piece, I was interested in having them shown during the conventions,” Dubois says. He’s getting his wish. The Weisman show will be up during the Republication National Convention in St. Paul in September. And a slightly different version of “Hindsight Is Always 20/20,” displayed in light boxes, will be exhibited at the Denver Performing Arts Complex during the Democratic National Convention in August.

Dubois emphasizes that, because of its mathematical process, the work is objective and nonpartisan. “It’s just numbers, word counts,” Dubois says. But viewers are free to apply their  own interpretation to the charts. For example, some might see Richard Nixon’s frequent use of the word truly as ironic, humorous, unfortunate, or simply as an idiosyncrasy of his speaking style.

Bill Clinton’s colloquial style is revealed in his second and third most-used words: got and lot. At the same time, those terms also succinctly describe the tremendous economic growth that occurred during Clinton’s presidency, just as his top word, 21st, reflects the millennial challenges the country was facing at the time.

“These words are telling insofar as a lot of the presidents were discussing the country’s tension about the future,” Dubois says. Gerald Ford’s top word is barrels, followed by crude and gas. Corporations, followed by railroads and wage, are Theodore Roosevelt’s number-one, -two and -three words. The top words for Cold War president Dwight Eisenhower are nuclear, planning, and scientific. In contrast, George Washington’s most used words are gentlemen, provision, and fellow.

Dubois adds that, “We Americans value the best, are always trying to order things. We’re obsessed with number-one songs. By presenting words in a similar way, we can also—in a metaphorical sense—test the eyesight of the nation.”

“Hindsight Is Always 20/20” shows Aug. 23 through Jan. 9 at the Weisman Art Museum, 333 East River Road, Minneapolis. 

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