Politics

Screen Savorer

By From the May 2009 issue

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Politico.com opened a rich vein of controversy in March when it reported that “President Obama doesn’t go anywhere without his teleprompter.… No other president has used one so consistently and at so many events, large and small.” Indeed, I have learned Obama sometimes brings a teleprompter to the Indian Treaty Room at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building and uses it to speak to as few as 15 people.

Obama’s reliance on the device has led some to assert it has become a crutch he can’t throw away—much like the cigarettes it’s been rumored the chief executive still sneaks puffs on. “After the teleprompter malfunctioned a few times last summer and Obama delivered some less-than-soaring speeches, reports surfaced that he was training to wean himself off of the device while on vacation in Hawaii. But no luck,” noted Politico.com.

Indeed, several reporters took notice of the new teleprompter that Obama unveiled at his late March news conference. Fox News opened its post- conference analysis by showing a picture of a 52-inch teleprompter that had been positioned in the back of the room, replacing the usual two screens flanking the podium. The change had clearly been made to make sure the TV cameras covering the event didn’t pick up a view of the device. Moderate columnist Ruben Navarrette acknowledged that “the popular narrative from conservatives— that Obama stumbles when he is off the teleprompter—is becoming more believable.”

But do conservatives agree on the significance of the fact that a man known as a gifted orator often uses a teleprompter? There are sharp divergences of opinion. Thomas Sowell of the Hoover Institution is acidic: “As it turns out, Obama has been such a bumbling incompetent that he probably couldn’t handle a trip through a Wendy’s drive-in window without a teleprompter telling him what to order.” Michael Gerson, former speechwriter for President Bush, is kinder, even gentle: “With a teleprompter, Obama can be ambitiously eloquent, without it, he tends to be soberly professional. A teleprompter speech represents the elevation of writing in politics. And good writing has an authenticity of its own.”

Tucker Carlson, the former MSNBC host, took issue with Obama critics such as Glenn Beck who worry that the teleprompter should cause Americans to worry “about who’s writing every word for this man.” “I am completely for the teleprompter,” he told a New York audience this month. “I know it’s frustrating for conservatives that there’s this narrative that Obama is stunningly eloquent when he’s often not. But you can’t change a narrative once it’s set in people’s minds. They will even reject direct evidence to the contrary.” Deroy Murdock, a syndicated columnist for Scripps Howard, also gives Obama a pass: “God bless him and his teleprompter. Ronald Reagan used one to great effect to give great speeches, so who are we to criticize its use now?”

Liberals responded to the Obama teleprompter issue by dismissing it and using it as an excuse for more Bush bashing. CNN’s Rick Sanchez introduced a segment on the issue by claiming “the far right this week has been saying that President Obama is too stupid to talk without a script.” He then played David Letterman’s skit titled “Teleprompter vs. No Teleprompter,” which pitted an excerpt from Obama’s first speech to Congress against a clip from an informal town hall meeting given by former President Bush. It was no contest, although it would have been fairer also to compare an Obama speech with one of his own gaffe-prone speeches when he was winging it on the campaign trail.

All that said, Obama sometimes gets a bum rap for mistakes related to his constant traveling companion. At a March St. Patrick’s Day event, he was standing next to Irish prime minister Brian Cowen when the foreign leader started giving President Obama’s remarks off the teleprompter. Mr. Obama then stepped in and said: “First, I’d like to say thank you to President Obama.…” But he was ad-libbing to break the tension, not reading mindlessly from the screen. Yet even Obama’s joke served to underline an impression that he’s become overly scripted and too dependent on the device.

THE JOKE HAS GONE SO FAR that a satirical blog (www.baracksteleprompter.blogspot.com) has been started in which the president’s teleprompter dishes up presidential gossip and snarky comments about White House message development. In mid-March, the blog noted press reports that Obama’s aides were trying again to wean the president off the teleprompter crutch. “Are they insane? With this rabid press corps constantly looking to pin Him down for every…detail about obscure legislation like the TARP funding? Or the economic stimulus bill? All that kind of detail can’t be fit on little note cards.”

Indeed, the teleprompter blog has confirmed reports in The American Spectator online that the White House is now “looking into how to hide video screens in podiums the president uses.” Such placement of screens would allow aides to scroll speech texts, messages, and even statistical data or quick points to be made by Obama in answering press questions. That would create a “wow” factor—an impression of competence and skill that would be unwarranted—akin to when President Kennedy was leaked in advance some of the questions that would be posed to him at White House news conferences, which reinforced the liberal narrative that he was a charming master of all subjects.

Using teleprompters for speeches is fine. What worries some Americans and should worry reporters is if use of such devices goes further and allows a president to pretend he is something he is not. As former Bush administration speechwriter Peter Roff notes, a presidential news conference is a test of sorts—a test of presidential skill under pressure.

Having top aides transmit behind-the-scenes updates to be used during a seemingly spontaneous event would be akin to a student writing the answers to a test on a shirt cuff. After all, it wasn’t so long ago that left-wing bloggers fell into a frenzied lather complaining that the bulge in President Bush’s suit during a 2004 debate with John Kerry was secretly giving him electronic assistance in answering questions.

Barack Obama isn’t the first president to use a teleprompter, and such a device can clarify his thinking and make it easier for the American people to understand his policies. But it’s also appropriate for the media to note just how much more he is using it than did his predecessors, and that there is a line beyond which a “Great Communicator” becomes a “Wizard of Oz”—a puffed-up figure who is much less impressive once people look behind the curtain.  

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About the Author

John H. Fund is a senior editor of The American Spectator and author of the Stealing Elections (Encounter Books).