By Michael Gerson
Friday, March 27, 2009
It is amazing how swiftly a presidential tendency turns from observation to joke to meme. Barack Obama -- called "the most eloquent political speaker of our time" -- has become known as the teleprompter president.
The issue gathered momentum when Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen read 20 seconds of Obama's teleprompter remarks at a White House ceremony before realizing his mistake. Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, at her nomination as head of Health and Human Services, was made to wait in awkward silence while Obama's teleprompter was adjusted. Then came Obama's use of the big-screen autocue at Tuesday night's news conference.
Coverage by Ron Fournier of the Associated Press began: "What kind of politician brings a teleprompter to a news conference?" A recent Politico story asserted, "President Barack Obama doesn't go anywhere without his teleprompter," calling it a "crutch." And in a popular new blog, Obama's teleprompter playfully chronicles its day.
If anyone is to blame for this technological dependence, it is probably Fred Barton, an actor from the 1950s. As author Laurie Brown tells the story, Barton was having trouble memorizing the vast number of lines required for live television. So he conceived of a scrolling screen of typed text -- an idea he shared with Irving Berlin Kahn (the composer's nephew) and Hub Schlafly at 20th Century Fox. Soon the device was being used by Milton Berle and actors in various soap operas. In 1952, Schlafly got a call from a man, identified simply as the "Chief," who wanted a meeting at the Waldorf-Astoria. It turned out to be former president Herbert Hoover, who ended up using a teleprompter for his remarks at that year's Republican convention.
For politicians, the teleprompter has always been something of an embarrassing vice -- the political equivalent of purchasing cigarettes, Haagen-Dazs and a Playboy at the convenience store.
This derision is based on the belief that the teleprompter exaggerates the gap between image and reality -- that it involves a kind of deception. It is true that there is often a distinction between a president on and off his script. With a teleprompter, Obama can be ambitiously eloquent; without it, he tends to be soberly professorial. Ronald Reagan with a script was masterful; during news conferences he caused much wincing and cringing. It is the rare politician, such as Tony Blair, who speaks off the cuff in beautifully crafted paragraphs.
But it is a mistake to argue that the uncrafted is somehow more authentic. Those writers and commentators who prefer the unscripted, who use "rhetoric" as an epithet, who see the teleprompter as a linguistic push-up bra, do not understand the nature of presidential leadership or the importance of writing to the process of thought.
Governing is a craft, not merely a talent. It involves the careful sorting of ideas and priorities. And the discipline of writing -- expressing ideas clearly and putting them in proper order -- is essential to governing. For this reason, the greatest leaders have taken great pains with rhetoric. Lincoln continually edited and revised his speeches. Churchill practiced to the point of memorization. Such leaders would not have been improved by being "unplugged." When it comes to rhetoric, winging it is often shoddy and self-indulgent -- practiced by politicians who hear Mozart in their own voices while others perceive random cymbals and kazoos. Leaders who prefer to speak from the top of their heads are not more authentic, they are often more shallow -- not more "real," but more undisciplined.
This is the lasting contribution of Fred Barton and his teleprompter. The speechwriting process that puts glowing words on the teleprompter screen serves a number of purposes. Struggling over the precise formulations of a text clarifies a president's own thinking. It allows others on his staff to have input -- to make their case as a speech is edited. The final wording of a teleprompter speech often brings internal policy debates to a conclusion. And good teamwork between a president and his speechwriters can produce memorable rhetoric -- the kind of words that both summarize a historical moment and transform it.
Obama's goal at his recent news conference was less elevated -- to express his thoughts on the economy with precision, as he faces a crisis in which a stray word could have a tremendous cost.
During a wobbly first two months, Obama has had many problems. But using an autocue isn't one of them. A teleprompter speech represents the elevation of writing in politics. And good writing has an authenticity of its own.