I’ve been almost too amazed to react to the recent bout of conservative hilarity over the president’s use of teleprompters to deliver prepared text. ‘Prompters are no different than a typed speech text in a folder on a podium, and anyone who thinks most politicians haven’t used those for well over a century probably doesn’t know that politicians don’t generally write their own speeches, either. Forget about the stunning difference between George W. Bush with and without a teleprompter; consider the Great Communicator, Ronald Reagan, who wasn’t so great without a teleprompter or a printed text.
But in any event, conservative and sometimes presidential speechwriter Mike Gerson has performed the rare feat of coming to the defense of both Barack Obama and the teleprompter in a Washington Post column today. Gerson not only documents the heavy prior use of teleprompters by other political leaders; he also argues that it’s a device that helps produce better presidential leadership and clearer executive thinking:
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.
My own take is a bit more prosaic. Having watched countless politicians practice speeches on teleprompters at Democratic conventions for a long time, it’s clear to me that the primary utility of the ‘prompters isn’t so much to present text, but to control pacing and intonation. I’ve watched speakers who have memorized their texts absolutely cold still rely heavily on the ‘prompter scroll to remind themselves where to take breaths, what to emphasize, and how to clearly enunciate potentially confusing words and passages. It’s certainly not a “crutch” to deceive anyone or to disguise a lack of intelligence; as Gerson suggests, it’s a tool that a fine intelligence puts to good use.
I doubt Gerson’s column alone will quell conservative mockery of Barack Obama’s teleprompter use. But this really is an exceptionally ignorant criticism, especially coming from those who say they want to “reveal” the president’s ignorance.