The TelePrompTer seems to be in the news again, due to Rick Santorum desperately trying to make it an issue in the Republican primary race. He apparently wants to make it illegal for presidential candidates to use these new-fangled machines when speaking to the public. This is an old slam against President Obama, but Santorum has a new twist: Mitt Romney apparently also uses one of these devices when speaking.
Sigh. You know, just the other day I was thinking: "Gosh, I sure do miss Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain." No, seriously. I mean, Bachmann and Cain could be counted upon to say something outrageously crazy, just about every time they were interviewed. Rick Santorum is a pale imitation of such wild and wooly candidate quips. Even when he tries to sound crazy, he mostly just comes off as stern and finger-wagging. Not quite the same thing.
I suppose it's kind of ironic. I loved watching Bachmann and Cain for precisely the point Santorum is making: when a politician goes "off script," sometimes unintentional (and amusing) things happen.
But I've already addressed his main point, which is why I'm just going to sit back today and re-run a lengthy excerpt from a Friday Talking Points article I wrote back at the beginning of Obama's term, when certain members of the media had picked up on the right-wing talking point about Obama's TelePrompTer usage. In March of 2009, I wrote the following. [To provide context: the lead-in to this portion of the article discussed bank deregulation and the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act.] Enjoy.
Historically Speaking (From A TelePrompTer)
Of course, as we all know, Ronald Reagan was the beginning of such deregulatory nonsense. And I was thinking of Reagan anyway earlier this week, after the national media proved once again that it has the intelligence (and memory skills) of your average houseplant, in the media's reaction to President Barack Obama's second prime-time press conference. I was reminded of Reagan due to one of the media's trivial pursuits this week -- Barack Obama's use of a TelePrompTer. [Editorial note: I realize I must be the last person on Earth (outside of the sticklers at The New Yorker, of course) who still capitalize this brand name correctly, as everyone else has decided it's a common noun... but I refuse to bow to modern convention, so deal with it. Hrrmph.]
Seriously, I wonder to myself, this is all you guys in the big, big media have got? You get paid the big bucks to (supposedly) report on the stories of the day, and you think the American people actually care whether Obama reads what he says off a piece of paper, or off a "modern" gizmo?
Here's some breaking news: the TelePrompTer was invented when Eisenhower was president (so that -- you can't make this stuff up -- Lucille Ball could read commercials on television). It is not exactly a "news flash" that politicians use them in the year 2009. I mean, seriously, can we get real here for just one tiny moment? The economy's crashing down all around us, and this is all you've got? When it has existed for over half a century?!?
I would caution smug media mavens with a bit of history, here. [Ron Fournier especially, as well as Carol Lee (who seems to think her bastardized capitalization "TelePrompter" is somehow "cool," since she can't really think it is correct in any way) and Peter Baker -- I'm looking in your direction.] Because the last time the TelePrompTer was an issue for a president, his name was Ronald Reagan. The press ridiculed Reagan, both for not knowing how to use a TelePrompTer... and (later) for using it too well.
My key point: does anyone remember this now? Or does everyone remember Reagan as "The Great Communicator" for his style? This is my note of caution to the press. In plain, simple language: "This is a stupid issue. There's nothing to it. Please move along. Stop obsessing over this non-issue. Please?" I would bet the farm [Note: I do not actually own a farm] that in 20 years, nobody's going to remember that Barack Obama used a TelePrompTer to speak to America. Any takers?
Don't believe me? Here are some choice excerpts from articles written in the first year of Reagan's first term (1981). [I apologize for the lack of links, I got these from Lexis/Nexis, which is a subscription service.]
The Washington Post, (5/10/81)
Personally, I am reassured by the easy manner in which the president sidesteps his own hard-line rhetoric and overheated ideology in favor of pragmatic political decisions. That confirms what longtime students of Reagan, particularly The Post's White House correspondent, Lou Cannon, have always insisted was the core of Reagan's political style. One eye on the teleprompter and the other eye on the voters.
The New York Times, (7/12/81)
For seasoned watchers of President Reagan, his mid-week speech in Chicago was a familiar scene gone slightly, and tellingly, awry. His trusty index cards had given way to a teleprompter. The crisp cadences of his off-the-cuff orations were replaced by long and harshly partisan sentences that visibly wearied both Mr. Reagan and his audience. Despite the last-minute effort by aides to correct a "mistake" in the speech text, Mr. Reagan admitted that his appointment of Judge Sandra Day O'Connor to the United States Supreme Court culminated a "search for a highly qualified woman."
The Washington Post, (9/28/81)
In one of his many stumbles and omissions of words or phrases apparently because of difficulties Reagan had reading from a teleprompter, the president dropped the second clause of that sentence when he delivered the speech at the Rivergate Convention Center here.
The Globe And Mail (Canada), in an article titled: "How to keep Reagan's foot out of his mouth" (12/18/81)
The former Hollywood actor impresses his audiences when there is a TelePrompTer rolling out a speech for him to read or when the points he should make are written on three-by-five-inch cue cards. But give him a question for which he can't recite an answer and he flounders about, offering vague generalities and giving every indication of an embarrassing lack of knowledge.
I have to salute the Canadians for their capitalization. Hrrmph.
But my favorite clip is from the New York Times in August of '81, which grudgingly predicts how history would eventually see Reagan:
Sound booms, television cameras, klieg lights and, on some oncamera figures, makeup, contributed a distinctively theatrical aura to the occasion. In fact, business seemed to take a back seat to the media event. What color shirt shows best on television? How does one gracefully read a speech from a Teleprompter? Most importantly how does one communicate credibly with an unseen audience? Chief executives might begin by studying the technique of a current master of the small screen, Ronald Reagan.
Writing a story about TelePrompTer usage is only really relevant when some sort of gaffe happens -- which did happen to Reagan quite a bit (although nobody remembers it now). There was one valid Obama TelePrompTer story two weeks ago (on Saint Patrick's Day), when there was a snafu with loading an Irish leader's text, but it actually was mostly ignored by the American media. Whoever was running the TelePrompTer cued up Obama's speech by mistake (for the Irishman), which he then began reading... and then Obama made a joke of it by immediately thanking him as "President Obama"... much to the amusement of the press, who laughed loudly at Obama's ad lib. But when no gaffe exists, no story exists. Or "should exist," if the media universe was a rational place.
The mainstream media needs to get over themselves, and they really need to realize that making fun of Obama for using a TelePrompTer is the most idiotic thing they've come up with yet to criticize about Barack Obama -- because in today's world, it's like making fun of someone for watching cable television, or for using a personal computer (how ridiculous would a story be that began: "President Obama used one of those new-fangled personal computing devices today..."?).
Actually, it's worse. Neither of those were widely available to the public until over three decades after the TelePrompTer became a common communication tool.
As Joe Bob Briggs, one of my philosophical gurus, is wont to say: "I'm surprised I have to explain this stuff."
-- Chris Weigant
Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant