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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Technical Difficulties

This isn’t important in the larger scheme of things, but as a longtime convention worker, I did want to comment on the strange technical difficulties that seem to have bedevilled some of the biggest speeches at the Republican Convention.
Yesterday we were informed that Sarah Palin had to fight a runaway teleprompter that didn’t pause for applause during her speech. The article on the subject cited “new equipment” as a problem (can’t imagine why they’d want to debut it during this particular speech), so maybe the GOPers were using some novel automated ‘prompter. The kind of teleprompters used in Denver, and so far as I know, everywhere in the past, are scrolled mechanically by an operator who closely follows the pace of the speaker. Moreover, in Denver a staffer was always on the podium with a hard copy of every speech, ready to run it to the lecturn if there are ‘prompter issues (that’s what happened briefly with Gov. Ted Strickland). Palin apparently had to rely on an older version of her speech that a campaign staffer happened to have in his coat pocket.
It’s to Palin’s credit that these problems didn’t affect her delivery; indeed, one of her signature lines, about hockey moms being pit bulls with lipstick, was reportedly ad libbed when some sign blocked her sight lines to the ‘prompter.
John McCain also appeared to have struggled with his teleprompter, though it’s not clear whether he had the same issues as Palin, or just hasn’t overcome his longstanding aversion to the technology. As I can tell you from countless rehearsals, some speakers simply can’t master the use of side-prompters, those transparent plates at the podium that many viewers mistake for bullet-proof glass shields. In shorter speeches, we always advise them to stick to the center ‘prompter, the giant screen at the back of the hall, and not worry about turning from side to side. But that gets pretty tedious-looking in a long speech like McCain’s.
‘Prompters aside, a lot of bloggers are having great sport today discussing some of the weird backdrops during McCain’s speech: first of all, a field of grass that in a narrow-frame shot looked just like the infamous “green screen” that drew so much mockery in an earlier Big Speech by McCain; and then, a photo of a North Hollywood middle school that appeared for no obvious reason, and that was apparently used in a West Wing episode.
Beyond production values and podium mechanics, I wondered several times during the Republican Convention about its speechwriting/vetting/rehearsal system. While some speeches were very good (Palin’s, Giuliani’s, and Huckabee’s, by most accounts), and others erratic but at some points effective (arguably McCain’s) there were an unusual number of poorly written and delivered speeches, not just in the bipartisan convention tradition of endless “message” redundancy, but in terms of grammer, coherence, and minimal oratorical competence. Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle’s Wednesday speech, just before Rudy Giuliani’s successful attack-fest, was one of the worst written and delivered convention addresses I’ve ever watched or heard. She paused for applause after virtually every line, and often had to wait a while for it. Democratic speakers are always advised to forget about applause unless it’s thunderous, since television understates ovations. It really did look like Lingle hadn’t rehearsed at all, and that no one with much of an ear had reviewed her text.
There’s a lot of talk today that McCain’s acceptance speech showed signs of massive overworking, with the emotional power of the Mark Salter ending vitiated by the long, boring policy iteration that preceded it. But in addition, I noticed one very simple speechwriting error: in a relatively long and key passage comparing his views to those of Barack Obama, McCain began with his talking point and then rushed into his construction of Obama’s position, eliciting, predictably, a “boo” from the audience. Had he reversed the order, each graph would have elicited a cheer. And that’s what you want when you’re trying to sound like a post-partisan “maverick” who’s fighting “politics as usual.”
Again, none of this stuff matters much in the long run. But it’s worth noting for Democrats who chronically fear that bad as Republicans are at governing, they’re flawless at politics.

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