Slim, black and untrustworthy, spewing long strings of words, knowing nothing of their meaning — this is how many people describe the president’s teleprompter.
But I think the teleprompter itself merits defending.
The quality evoked by Enemies of the Teleprompter is “authenticity.” But what does this mean, exactly? The lack of a filter? Unfiltered people, like unfiltered cigarettes, tend to make me cough and leave the room. Authenticity is all very nice when you are shopping for antique coins or trying to find a woman on “The Bachelor.” But when it comes to public speaking, only one thing is true: We are authentically terrified of it.
We’d rather drown in a stopped elevator full of sharks than give a speech about it afterward.
What if we forget what we’re saying? What if we look ridiculous? It’s been said (mostly by after-dinner speakers) that it takes up to three weeks to compose a good off-the-cuff speech. That’s an understatement.
The teleprompter is one response to this predicament.
With it, we did what we usually do in the face of a terrifying social interaction: created a helpful machine to take the hard part out of it. Scared to flirt? Just text. Scared to pick up under-aged women? Just go into an online chatroom. Alarmed at the idea of conducting surveillance missions yourself? Send the drone. Scared of public speaking? Now all you have to do is stand there and squint into the screen, picturing the audience in their underwear, and say the words as they appear. Comparatively, it’s a piece of cake.
The current president is not the only one to use it. It’s been a feature of the State of the Union address for years.
Sure, Abraham Lincoln never used a teleprompter. The same could be said of flush toilets, but I don’t want those involved in speeches either.
Why do our electronic aids get such a bad rap? Seal Team 6 is going to be drinking for free for the rest of its life. Meanwhile, just try being a remote-operated drone and getting someone to buy you a drink, even if you did assist in taking out that vital public enemy.
And the teleprompter faces the same fate as others of its kind. It has all the lines imaginable but it can’t get a girl. It can’t even get Rick Santorum.
Why do we hate teleprompters so much?
Is it the idea that somehow, if it were removed, you’d be incapable of going on with the speech? Take away Obama’s teleprompter, we seem to think, and suddenly he’ll be left to roam the countryside, desolate and helpless, gaffeing everywhere.
“They’re feeding him words!” some murmur. That seems suspect. Real Americans don’t eat other people’s words. They barely eat their own. And usually they wait until it becomes a national media firestorm.
No Real American has a teleprompter. It seems like one of those European innovations, like using snails as food and sneaking silent consonants into words.
(Actually, teleprompters are American in origin. A man named Hubert “Hub” Schlafly was instrumental in the invention. But never mind that. It’s erratically capitalized, TelePrompTer, and that seems wrong.)
Look, William Jennings Bryan used to deliver year-long speeches in blinding sleet uphill both ways, using no notes whatsoever. That’s what Real Americans do.
But Real Americans only have to speak once or twice a year.
The reason we need teleprompters is the same reason the people without them are so prone to gaffes. Enter public life, and you are called upon to speak far more often than any reasonable person would have anything to say. In his first year in office, President Obama made 411 speeches. This is, quite frankly, insane. If you don’t have someone else there with reassuring, vetted words, you are bound eventually to fly off the handle. Force anyone to talk that long, and the probability of a gaffe approaches 1.0. You can’t help it.
Teleprompters aren’t perfect. They stand between you and your public. They point up the fact that you are delivering prepared remarks and that you cannot see all the way to the end of the sentence, leading you to intone things strangely. But they’re better than the alternative.
Better yet would be if we occasionally allowed people to stop talking.