Romney, you can’t govern by bullet point
By Ruth Marcus,
Some people believe that Mitt Romney is unfit to be president because the health reform he instituted as Massachusetts governor included an individual mandate.
I believe Romney is unfit to be president because he used a PowerPoint presentation to defend it.
America does not need a PowerPoint president.
Let me make that stronger: A PowerPoint president would be bad for America.
My anti-PowerPoint stance is nonpartisan and non-Luddite. I wrote my first screed against the omnipresent program back in 2005, when Romney was still a moderate Republican and PowerPoint had been implicated as a potential contributor to the 2003 space shuttle disaster. On the techno-front, I am from the era of overhead projectors and audio-visual aids. I love a meaty Excel spreadsheet.
It’s just that I loathe PowerPoint. Enduring a PowerPoint presentation is rarely informative and never efficient. The inevitable cutesy graphics — why think through a tough problem when you can spend your time surfing for clip art or experimenting with fonts? — add a bullet point of insult to the injury of having to sit though it.
And about those bullet points: They are a fine device for organizing your thoughts. They are a terrible mechanism for explaining or debating a difficult issue.
Yale University political scientist Edward Tufte, in a 2003 Wired magazine article, “PowerPoint Is Evil,” compared PowerPoint to a prescription drug that “induced stupidity, turned everyone into bores, wasted time, and degraded the quality and credibility of communication.”
Exhibit A: Romney’s health-care presentation. The first slide — “The American Experiment: Government or People?” — could be a parody of PowerPoint. It reduces the national charter to a set of bullet points. In case you think I’m exaggerating, they are, and I quote:
l The people are sovereign
l Freedom to choose representatives
l Freedom to choose occupation, enterprises
Accompanied by an illustration of a quill pen atop a parchment scroll version of the Constitution.
It is difficult to capture the graphical inanity in words, but here is the slide that purports to show the different goals of “Obamacare” and “Mass-Care.” Under the first header: “A government takeover of health care.” Under the second: “Help people get and keep their health insurance.” Well, that settles it, no?
This is life imitating satire. A few years back, computer whiz Peter Norvig translated Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address into PowerPoint. In 2009, the New Republic lampooned Romney’s foreign policy vision — “four competing nations or groups of nations, representing four different ways of life” — by turning it into a PowerPoint slide. Now Romney has outdone Norvig and the New Republic.
There are two problems with Romney’s predilection for PowerPoint. One is the threat that he would use it to communicate on the campaign trail or, heaven forfend, from the Oval Office. When he ran for governor in 2002, Romney inflicted a series of PowerPoint presentations on the voters of Massachusetts. From one slide on Romney’s education plan:
l Vision, not blueprint
l Further definition with on-going input from parents, teachers, students, principals, administrators and other experts
l My starting point: parents & teachers
Please, spare us from a president who uses the words “ongoing” and “input.”
Even scarier is the thought that Romney may actually believe PowerPoint is a useful tool for conducting meetings and making decisions. There is, ominously enough, some evidence to suggest this: The Boston Globe got hold of an internal Romney campaign strategy memo in 2007 that consisted of a whopping 77 PowerPoint slides. On one, listing potential “bogeymen” for the candidate to run against, the author had taken the time to find art to illustrate two possible targets: France and Hillary Clinton. Apparently there was no clip art for “moral relativism.”
In an interview last year with the Harvard Business Review, titled “Make Meetings Work: Fight the PowerPoint,” investor Robert Pozen described meetings at which presenters “just slog through 20 or 30 PowerPoint slides” as “a terrible waste of time.”
He’s right, but time-wasting is the least of it. Government-by-PowerPoint threatens to flatten the nuance inherent in difficult public policy decisions. It substitutes the appearance of serious thinking for real analytical rigor.
And really, governor, if you’re trying to come across as a Regular Guy, is a PowerPoint presentation the way to go? You ought to delete that program. Just one columnist’s ongoing input.