Recency Bias, as demonstrated by Lawrence O’Donnell

LincolnAmong the effects of recency bias is our tendency to overvalue and overemphasize the recent past as compared to more distant events and then to extrapolate it into the future. Lawrence O’Donnell was guilty of it to a remarkable extent this week during a discussion on his show relating to President Obama’s approach to radical Islam and a particular speech he had delivered that day that O’Donnell thought pandered to the religious (critics, of course, thought the President was trolling). Notice how he prefaced his criticism (my emphasis; you can watch this segment of O’Donnell’s show here).

President Obama, who is the most gifted writer and speaker in the history of the American presidency, today delivered the worst speech of his presidency.

Even allowing for the possibility that O’Donnell was using hyperbole to make his criticism seem more pointed, the claim that the current president — who undoubtedly is exceptionally gifted — “is the most gifted writer and speaker in the history of the American presidency” is, frankly, absurd.

Consider, just off the top of my head (with a bit of digging to find the links and video), the following great presidential writers and speech-makers.

Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address remains the standard for presidential speeches — ten sentences that said everything that needed to be said and more about an enormous subject and did so with unparalleled eloquence (“It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth”). Note further that unlike more recent presidents, Lincoln didn’t have a speech writing team — he wrote his speeches entirely himself. I’m especially partial to his Second Inaugural. Every time I visit our capital city I try to sit in the Lincoln Memorial, preferably in quiet off-hours, and read these words, etched into the north wall’s granite, once more, slowly and carefully.

Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

George Washington’s Farewell Address was powerful and still impacts politics today.

There is an opinion that parties in free countries are useful checks upon the administration of the government and serve to keep alive the spirit of liberty. This within certain limits is probably true; and in governments of a monarchical cast, patriotism may look with indulgence, if not with favor, upon the spirit of party. But in those of the popular character, in governments purely elective, it is a spirit not to be encouraged. From their natural tendency, it is certain there will always be enough of that spirit for every salutary purpose. And there being constant danger of excess, the effort ought to be by force of public opinion, to mitigate and assuage it. A fire not to be quenched, it demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest, instead of warming, it should consume.

But I really love his First Inaugural.

The preservation of the sacred fire of liberty, and the destiny of the republican model of government, are justly considered as deeply, perhaps as finally staked, on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s First Inaugural was fantastic (the “only thing we have to fear is fear itself”)…

…as was his “four freedoms” State of the Union Address in 1941, but who can forget his speech asking for a declaration of war against Japan?

Yesterday, December 7, 1941a date which will live in infamythe United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.

John F. Kennedy’s inaugural is nearly as famous (and as good) as Lincoln’s classic at Gettysburg (and, given what we know of Lincoln’s oratory, was surely better delivered).

And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.

JFK’s speech explaining his decision to go to the moon (“We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard”) was outstanding too.

Dwight Eisenhower isn’t generally remembered as a great orator, but his warning about the “military-industrial complex” as he left the White House remains influential and prescient to this day.

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

And Lyndon Johnson’s voting rights speech in 1965 resonates still.

What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and State of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life. Their cause must be our cause too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.

Ronald Reagan gave many great speeches, including a touchingly beautiful one in Normandy for the 40th anniversary of D-Day (“These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc. These are the men who took the cliffs. These are the champions who helped free a continent. These are the heroes who helped end a war”)…

…and a lovely tribute in the wake of the Challenger disaster (“We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for the journey and waved goodbye … and ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth’ to ‘touch the face of God'”). But his speech at the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin in 1987 foreshadowed the future and inspired millions (listen to the reaction of the German people in the video below).

There is one sign the Soviets can make that would be unmistakable, that would advance dramatically the cause of freedom and peace. General Secretary Gorbachev, if you seek peace, if you seek prosperity for the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, if you seek liberalization: Come here to this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, open this gate! Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!

To be clear, Barack Obama is really good too. His “more perfect union” speech in 2008 (“In the white community, the path to a more perfect union means acknowledging that what ails the African-American community does not just exist in the minds of black people; that the legacy of discrimination — and current incidents of discrimination, while less overt than in the past — are real and must be addressed”) and his 2006 speech on faith and politics (my personal favorite) are both outstanding examples of excellent speeches well delivered.

After all, the problems of poverty and racism, the uninsured and the unemployed, are not simply technical problems in search of the perfect ten point plan. They are rooted in both societal indifference and individual callousness – in the imperfections of man.

Solving these problems will require changes in government policy, but it will also require changes in hearts and a change in minds. I believe in keeping guns out of our inner cities, and that our leaders must say so in the face of the gun manufacturers’ lobby – but I also believe that when a gang-banger shoots indiscriminately into a crowd because he feels somebody disrespected him, we’ve got a moral problem. There’s a hole in that young man’s heart – a hole that the government alone cannot fix.

Even so, at a minimum, O’Donnell’s claim is wildly premature. It takes a bit of historical perspective to determine GOAT status and the President’s term of office isn’t even over yet. But I also can’t help but believe that O’Donnell is obviously wrong. President Obama is really good, but he’s no Abraham Lincoln. None of us are. It isn’t likely that objective observers will see him as #2, #3 or #4 either (which hardly makes him a slouch).

O’Donnell’s sweeping yet silly claim is perfectly normal nonetheless. It’s why teenagers think the only songs worth listening to are current and why their parents and (especially) grandparents lament what’s going on with “kids these days.” If we were to get a fluke snowstorm in San Diego today, no doubt at least a few folks would race out to look at four-wheel drive SUVs. That’s all recency bias. Lawrence O’Donnell: thanks for the textbook example and thus the timely reminder.


1 thought on “Recency Bias, as demonstrated by Lawrence O’Donnell

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s