Pictured are John Quincy Adams through Zachary Taylor

R. Luke DuBois has created a fascinating visual representation of presidential State of the Union addresses (also known as annual messages until FDR’s administration).

HINDSIGHT IS ALWAYS 20/20 takes the State of the Union addresses from each presidency and sorts them according to word frequency, generating a Snellen eye chart for each president, with the more frequent words in larger typeface at the top of the chart and the less frequent words towards the bottom. The 66-member word lists for each presidency are designed to draw out the most unique and contemporary vocabulary used by the president in his speeches; words that appear in the majority of speeches (e.g. “united”, “states”, “the”, “his”, “her”, “am”) are cancelled out; words that appear in a few Presidents’ speeches are given to the President who uses the word the most. As a result, the list contains words that are not only important in a given presidency but also au courant in terms of lexicon and contemporary context.

The forty-one presidencies to have State of the Union addresses (William Henry Harrison and James Garfield, alas, died before they could submit a single message to Congress) each have their own eye chart. Additional eyechart information appears in the margins concerning the use of the chart as a testing device.

The aim of the piece is to make a statement about the perennial political metaphor of vision, without which much of the rhetoric of presidential politics quickly deflates. The choice of words employed by a given presidential administration to articulate its message is in many ways its signature. Looking back, we can use this vocabulary to test the metaphorical eyesight of the nation throughout its history.

At the link, click on “Charts,” then on an individual president’s name along the bottom of the chart to discover which words appeared most frequently.

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