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S.C. Rep. Says Low Speaking-Skill Score Reflects Principle

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When John "Mick" Mulvaney stepped off the floor of the House of Representatives one recent morning to speak to a National Public Radio reporter, he had no idea what he was stepping into.

The reporter informed the South Carolina Republican that a study of the speaking skills of all 535 members of Congress had put Mulvaney at the bottom; the very bottom, as in 535 out of 535.

Mulvaney said he was surprised and dismissive of the results but not upset.

"It was a fairly light-hearted piece with a fairly light-hearted take on things, and I still consider it to be that," Mulvaney told RTT News.

"To the extent people are looking for a reason to think conservative Republicans are idiots, this would give them what they want," he added. "But I don't think ordinary people would equate sentence length or the length of your words with intelligence."

The study by the Washington-based Sunlight Foundation ranked members of Congress by the grade level of their floor speeches, using a system called the Flesch-Kincaid test, which basically awards higher grade levels to those speeches with longer words and sentences.

Mulvaney's score, 7.95, was far below the average congressional level of 10.6 - but still above the grade-level average between 8 and 9 at which most Americans read.

A first-term congressman, Mulvaney has degrees from Georgetown University, North Carolina Law School, and even Harvard Business School. He ran for Congress soon after finishing at Harvard and was elected with 55 percent of the vote in the Republican wave of 2010. His district, the state's fifth, covers the northeast corner of the state that borders North Carolina.

Mulvaney said his score actually reflects his principled intention to speak more plainly.

"I was personally trained, both in journalism and public speaking, that shorter words are always preferable to longer words, and clearer sentences are always preferable to long, drawn-out, run-on sentences," he said. "No one ever thought Ernest Hemingway was an idiot for using shorter sentences."

Mulvaney had the sense of humor to send out a dense, 115-word formal statement in response to media requests over the past week about his score. He said he hopes it "brings light to the whole absurdity of this study."

The full statement:

"In an analytical algorithmic system, such as the Flesch-Kincaid Test employed by the Sunlight Foundation in the current study and as originally reported by NPR, which attempts to establish a correlation between intellect and such simplistic metrics as length of sentence and polysyllabic word choice, it should not strike one as unanticipated that it is the person who has a thesaurus within easy reach, is afforded an unlimited supply of commas, possesses a surplusage of time, and is somehow afforded unfettered access to a microphone, who invariably will be acknowledged as the smartest person in the room.

It seems that a better measure may well be whether the person actually has something intelligent to say."

For comments and feedback contact: editorial@rttnews.com

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