Is President Obama able to conduct a news conference without a teleprompter? Is he an automaton in answering questions? With all the jokes about Karl Rove as George Bush‘s brain or cracks during the 1980s about Ronald Reagan supposedly being an amiable dunce, could you imagine the reaction if either president had used a teleprompter to answer questions? The late night joke writers wouldn’t have let it go until the president gave in to the merciless ridicule as he was painted as an idiot who couldn’t tie his shoes without being fed instructions on how to do it.
As it was, Mr. Bush suffered a deluge of unfounded criticism over the “bulge” in his jacket during the first presidential debate in 2004. The bizarre claim was that somehow this bulge allowed Karl Rove or someone else to tell Mr. Bush what to say during the debate. Democratic National Committee Chairman Terence R. McAuliffe raised the issue. Salon.com asked, “Was President Bush literally channeling Karl Rove in his first debate with John Kerry?” The Washington Post noted, “Journalists had been passing around the link to the photo all week” and referred to the “widespread” speculation.
Well, it might be time to ask even more seriously if David Axelrod is Barack Obama’s brain.
Finally, last Friday, Politico broached a topic that has been talked about in Washington for months - Obama’s almost total reliance on a teleprompter. The Politico went so far as referring to it as a “crutch” that created awkward moments witnessed by the press that made taking pictures of the president and others in the White House tricky. It is hard for the media to ignore the teleprompter when they are angling for shots so that the teleprompters aren’t blocking pictures of the president and others.
Towson University political science professor and presidential historian Martha Joynt Kumar noted this use of the teleprompter “is just something presidents haven’t done.” Until now.
Just last week, Obama’s presentation of Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius as head of Health and Human Services created an awkward silence between the Obama and Sebelius presentations while everyone had to wait for the teleprompters to be lowered to be moved out of the way. Politico mentioned the “uncomfortable laughter” the delay produced from the audience.
The American Spectator notes that for many events: “… down to many of the questions and the answers to those questions. … [t]eleprompter screens at the events scrolled not only his opening remarks, but also statistics and information he could use to answer questions.” It quoted one Obama advisor as saying that Mr. Obama is looking at installing a computer screen in White House podiums so “it would make it easier for the comms (communications) guys to pass along information without being obvious about it.”
The notion that a computer technician is queuing up the president’s answers to questions is disturbing. One can easily imagine a Saturday Night Live skit where a technician waits with a canned set of answers to possible questions and from time to time cues up the wrong one.
Some have noted that Mr. Obama’s stumbling speeches have occurred when teleprompters have malfunctioned. The Politico reports that President-elect Obama’s vacation to Hawaii last year was actually used to try “wean[ing] himself off of the device … But no such luck.”
Andrew Breitbart’s Big Hollywood blog followed the Late Night comics during the first month of the Obama presidency and noted the complete lack of jokes about the new president. Of course, that is nothing new. During the campaign last year from Jan. 1 to July 31, the Center for Media and Public Affairs found that both John McCain and Hillary Clinton had at least twice as many jokes about them by network comedians as about Mr. Obama.
Yet possibly the comedians have an excuse for missing this, given the virtually complete lack of coverage by the news media. With all the effort to maneuver camera shots to avoid teleprompters blocking Mr. Obama’s pictures, the news media has no such excuse.
While the teleprompter might let Mr. Obama blame someone else whenever the answer turns out to be wrong, we would like to have a president who occasionally comes across as more than a TV anchor reading a script.