Teleprompter president

Have we lost the art of oratory? A couple of YouTube clips are evidence in a trial of the teleprompter president.
Brian Lilley | Apr 8 2009 | comment  



He’s gone from being a man known for his soaring rhetoric and impeccable oratorical skills to being dubbed the teleprompter president. Popular talk show host Laura Ingraham began calling Barack Obama “Tennis Match” after watching one of the president’s speeches where he read the script from the teleprompter, his head bouncing from the screen on the left to the screen on the right and back again.

Mr. Obama’s Teflon image is certainly wearing away as the public, at least the American public, begin to notice the man is human. Internationally, Mr. Obama’s superhuman status remains intact.

Some of this talk is surely just right wing bashing of the left wing president, pay back from Republicans after years of having to put up with BDS, Bush Derangement Syndrome; a condition that appeared to infect many left wing commentators so that the mere mention of Mr. Bush’s name sent them into full blown fits. In fact, one bumper sticker being passed around on the right these days reads “I’ll give your president the same respect you gave mine.” Meaning very little at all.

So it was in that light that I viewed the series of emails popping around lately of YouTube clips of Barack Obama stumbling through bouts of verbal incoherence when speaking without a teleprompter.

Now I have to say, I reject the overall charge that President Obama just can’t speak without a teleprompter, despite the evidence that he has sometimes fumbled. I’ve watched him closely, once had the chance to sit in the same room as the man for a news conference where neither the president nor Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper used teleprompters. This is, I thought, just a partisan harangue of a president they don’t like.

Or is it?

White House historians, press corps members, and others have begun noting how frequently President Obama uses the device for speeches long or short. Consider this from a recent piece on Politico.com

Obama’s reliance on the teleprompter is unusual — not only because he is famous for his oratory, but because no other president has used one so consistently and at so many events, large and small.

After the teleprompter malfunctioned a few times last summer and Obama delivered some less-than-soaring speeches, reports surfaced that he was training to wean himself off of the device while on vacation in Hawaii. But no such luck.

Then there was the mistake President Obama made on St. Patrick’s Day, at an event with Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen. Mr. Obama thanked himself for inviting all the guests; a teleprompter mix-up he should have been able to stop if he were simply reading and paying attention to what he was saying.

As commentary grew about the president’s use of a teleprompter, the White House noticed. During his second prime time news conference to sell his budget and stimulus plan, the standard teleprompter was gone, now replaced by a single, large flat screen at the rear of the room. No more eyes bouncing from the left to the right, the president addressed the public by looking straight ahead into the cameras, reading every word, a change noted by The New York Times.

Am I picking on the president here? No, although given the number of teleprompter blunders, it appears that would be easy. Instead I’m using the most powerful politician in the world to lament the loss of some key skills for politicians, oratory and rhetoric.

I watch politicians for a living. Most of them, even at the top of their game, have only mediocre oratorical skills. I don’t know why this is; these people, like me as a broadcaster, do a great deal of speaking for a living, yet most stumble and stammer about when asked to defend their positions, critique an opponent or give a speech. In Canada’s Parliament we have, when the House of Commons is sitting, a daily question period. Members of the three opposition parties rise during the 45 minute theatrical event to ask the prime minister or other government ministers a question related to policy or more often, alleged scandal. You would think that in asking a 35 second question, Members of Parliament would be able to eke out their question without reading verbatim the question written by a partisan staffer; or that those ministers could answer a question regarding their portfolio without reading a reply written by someone else. If you think that, you are sadly mistaken.

Perhaps the sad state of affairs, the utter lack of any skill in speaking or any sense that the politicians even believe what they are trying to sell to us is why a recent short speech by a British Member of the European Parliament, was such a hit (more than 2 million YouTube viewings). Daniel Hannan, a Conservative MEP for South East England, delivered a rebuttal to British Prime Minister Gordon Brown. Brown had just finished delivering a speech asking European politicians to join him in the push for an expanded stimulus package, more spending to theoretically get the economy going.

Hannan, while clearly having rehearsed his speech, delivered most of it looking at Gordon Brown, who was required by EU parliamentary protocol to stay and listen to the responses to his own speech. Another difference for Hannan, a sense that he believes what he says, that it is not tested in a focus group and derived from the latest nationwide public opinion polls. In fact, despite a warm reception from pundits on the right in North America, media commentary on his speech in the UK has tilted against him, one Labour pundit calling it “a cleverly little Etonian, public school boy speech.”

Mr. Hannan’s speech was more than clever. The brief chiding of a major head of state struck a nerve, I think, for two reasons; the aforementioned clarity of his talk, his ability to actually use words without the teleprompter and because people are fed up. As the global economy sinks, I hear radio talk show lines filled with people not sure the solutions offered by governments will work. I see online chatter expressing a similar sentiment. And all the while leaders of the world’s richest economies step forward to tell their people, “We have a handle on this”.

Americans began nationalising their banks and insurance companies after Labour Day. They began the process of bailing out auto companies around October and they’ve watched some of their tax dollars head to corporate bonuses. Still they are being asked by their president to approve another major round of bailouts in the $3.6 trillion dollar budget. The recent G20 meeting saw world leaders pledge $1 trillion to boosting emerging economies. And still no sense that it is done. Perhaps Mr. Hannan has tapped into the same vein the Howard Beale character did in the 1976 satirical film Network, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.”

Brian Lilley is the Ottawa Bureau Chief of CFRB Radio Toronto and CJAD 800 Montreal, and Mercatonet's Associate Editor. Read his blog on Canadian politics here or follow him on Twitter.

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