Artist R. Luke DuBois explains the vision behind his presidential project — and then lets you test your Oval Office know-how.
Although he only delivered three of them, President John F. Kennedy’s annual State of the Union addresses contained more than their share of stirring lines, like: “We shall be judged more by what we do at home than by what we preach abroad” and “Our nation is commissioned by history to be either an observer of freedom’s failure or the cause of its success.” But if you look at the three words that he used more than any other president in his SOTUs, they’re surprisingly humdrum: “alliance”; “recession”; “cold.” Meanwhile, the top three words from the SOTUs of George H.W. Bush, who was not known for his rousing oratory, are warmer and more inspiring: “idea”; “kids”; “deserve.”
Right now, at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC, you can see 41 charts — modeled on eye charts that test vision — detailing the 66 words that each president used more often than any of their peers in their SOTUs. (Why only 41? Presidents William Henry Harrison and James Garfield passed away before delivering a SOTU, and the series was completed before Barack Obama and Donald Trump were elected.)
Artist R. Luke DuBois (TED Talk: Insightful human portraits made from data) was commissioned to create an art project for the 2008 Democratic National Convention. He knew he wanted to depict the words frequently said by each commander-in-chief, but that was it. His aha moment came while he was watching TV commentary on the SOTU just delivered by president George W. Bush. “James Carville was on CNN, and he kept using the word ‘vision’ about Bush and how he didn’t have any vision,” DuBois says. “I remember thinking, hmmm … the way you test someone’s vision is an eye chart.” Thus was born the project, titled “Hindsight Is Always 20/20.”
Researchers at the American Presidency Project ran a text-analysis algorithm on every president’s SOTUs to generate each president’s most frequently used words — the words he used more than any other commander-in-chief. As an example, DuBois explains, “Jimmy Carter used ‘US’ more than the rest, so it’s only on his chart even though other presidents said it many times too.” DuBois, who is also a composer and digital-media professor at NYU, is working on a word-related project about Obama; it encompasses all of his speeches but “has a different vibe to it.”
“Hindsight Is Always 20/20” will be on display through September 4. DuBois is pleased to have his charts displayed alongside the traditional oil paintings of US leaders; to him, they’re just another form of portraiture. “They bring you back to thinking about how much words matter,” he says. “It doesn’t really matter what a president looks like; it’s how they talk that counts.”
Quiz: Can you guess the president associated with each of these charts?
1. Which president used these words the most in his addresses?
a. James Buchanan
b. Ulysses S. Grant
c. Abraham Lincoln
d. Andrew Johnson
2. Which president used these words the most in his addresses?
a. Ronald Reagan
b. Bill Clinton
c. George H.W. Bush
d. George W. Bush
3. Which president used these words the most in his addresses?
a. George H.W. Bush
b. George W. Bush
c. Ronald Reagan
d. Bill Clinton
4. Which president used these words the most in his addresses?
a. George Washington
b. John Adams
c. Andrew Jackson
d. Thomas Jefferson
5. Which president used these words the most in his addresses?
a. Herbert Hoover
b. Franklin D. Roosevelt
c. Harry S. Truman
d. Theodore Roosevelt
6. Which president used these words the most in his addresses?
a. Ronald Reagan
b. Dwight D. Eisenhower
c. Harry S. Truman
d. Jimmy Carter
7. Which president used these words the most in his addresses?
a. Jimmy Carter
b. Richard Nixon
c. Bill Clinton
d. Lyndon B. Johnson
To see the answers, please scroll down.
All rights reserved © 2008 R. Luke DuBois.
Images courtesy of bitforms gallery, NYC.
Answers: 1. c; 2. d; 3. c; 4. a; 5. d; 6. b; 7. b