President Obama’s Teleprompter dependence has become so extreme that the little gadget has decided to enter the blogosphere with its own tell-all story.
Yes, it’s good for a joke or two. But more serious discussion of the Teleprompter reliance of our new Orator-in-Chief mostly focuses on the irony and apparent contradiction that a president known for being an articulate graduate of Harvard Law School, and for the soaring rhetoric of his inspiring oratory, appears remarkably tongue-tied and awkward without his trusty Telly.
Of course it’s always been known that speechmaking, in contrast with the more spontaneous give-and-take of debate or press conferences, is a very different beast. For example, John McCain (remember him?) was far better at the latter than the former—that is, until he became candidate McCain in 2008, at which point he started resembling his predecessor George Bush and was rather mediocre at both. It was also clear from the Obama campaign that we knew only a tiny bit about his off-the-cuff speaking, because almost all of his interviews were softball puffery.
But what we did know was troubling; many on the Right pointed out that Obama stammered and hesitated, and seemed to be almost a different person, without his script.
Obama himself seems to be aware of the disparity. His attempt to deal with it has been this over-reliance on the Teleprompter to help overcome his disfluency when speaking extemporaneously. It makes sense; after all, why stammer and stumble when you can sound smooth?
The late great Dean Barnett was one of the first to not only notice this but to understand what it might signify besides a simple desire for fluency. Writing in February 2008 about a speech Obama had made a few days earlier, Barnett shrewdly observed [emphasis mine]:
As he strode to the podium, Obama clutched in his hands a pile of 3 by 5 index cards. The index cards meant only one thing–no Teleprompter.
Shorn of his Teleprompter, we saw a different Obama. His delivery was halting and unsure. He looked down at his obviously copious notes every few seconds throughout the speech. Unlike the typical Obama oration where the words flow with unparalleled fluidity, he stumbled over his phrasing repeatedly.
The prepared text for his remarks, as released on his website, sounded a lot like a typical Obama speech….The prepared text reached out to all Americans, including (gasp!) Republicans. It also evidenced Obama’s signature lack of anger…[and] loftier tone…
But…[w]ith no Teleprompter signaling the prepared text, Obama failed to deliver the speech in his characteristically flawless fashion. He had to rely on notes. And his memory. And he improvised…
Virtually every time Obama deviated from the text, he expressed the partisan anger that has so poisoned the Democratic party. His spontaneous comments eschewed the conciliatory and optimistic tone that has made the Obama campaign such a phenomenon…[T]his different Obama was a far less attractive one…
Barnett noticed—as many had, even at the time—the enormous difference in articulateness between Teleprompter-Obama and Obama unplugged (the latter is the title of Barnett’s article). That was the easy part. The more discriminating observation Barnett made was between the message of Teleprompter Obama and the message of ad-lib Obama. The two were not just different in degree—they were profoundly opposite in tone and essence. Ad-lib Obama was far more angry and more radical—indeed, although Barnett doesn’t mention it, this Obama resembled the angrier and more radical Michelle Obama, in her earlier campaign remarks that drew so much controversy.
Obama is addicted to his Teleprompter not only because he knows he sounds better—smoother and smarter—with it than without. The deeper reason for his reliance on it may just be that he differs so profoundly from the persona he wishes to convey that he quite literally cannot trust himself to speak without it. Shorn of the Teleprompter, he not only runs the risk of revealing a disfluency that could rival (or even exceed?) that of his reviled predecessor George Bush—he may reveal who he truly is, an angry man with a profoundly radical agenda for America.
That agenda (although not the anger) emerged just a bit when he was being questioned by Joe the Plumber during the campaign (the anger came later, when Obama mocked Joe). Obama’s “spread the wealth” remark to Joe was a tiny slip of the careful campaign mask, a moment when just a dab of Obama’s far Left leanings oozed out through an unguarded crack. Now that Obama is president, he has revealed more of those inclinations, but he is doing so in a calibrated and orchestrated manner that is calculated (he hopes) to soothe any alarm most Americans might feel.
All leaders rehearse and prepare their speeches. Churchill, as I recall from the wonderful William Manchester biographies of him (one of which appears in the photo at the top of my blog page), prepared his public addresses down to the tone and gestures, even writing notes to himself as to when to seem to hesitate and when to stammer. But that was theater, designed to accentuate who and what he already was and had been known to be for decades. Churchill’s private and public selves were congruent, as well as his brilliance in both scripted and extemporaneous speaking and debate.
I’m not expecting Obama to be Churchill. But Obama’s oratorical hyper-control, unlike Churchill’s, is in the service of hiding rather than revealing the essential self. All really good orators know how to milk a crowd, and even to use suggestive gestures that border on mass hypnosis. But Obama’s exercise of such things is extreme, and he just may be offering us the fewest non-scripted public utterances of any leader in America’s modern history.
The reason for this is not merely his attempt to appear more articulate than he actually is. In his endeavor to exercise such tight control over his words, Obama seems to be presenting the most studied and manipulative (in the sense of saying one thing and intending another, and/or using doublespeak, as I outlined in yesterday’s post) message of any president in our history. This is profoundly disturbing.