Prompt Action

We've long since reached the point where if Barack Obama drinks a root beer, some prominent Republican or right-wing pundit has to express outrage and tell us why it's shameful for the Leader of the Free World to drink a root beer…never mind that the last six Republican presidents, the exalted Reagan included, drank root beer. Reagan especially doesn't count because he had A&W, whereas Obama's drinking Hires.

One of the stupider accusations of this stripe is that there's something wrong with Obama using a TelePrompter. There's been one on the podium of every political convention for around 50 years and just about every politician has used them, particularly when delivering (as presidents do) prepared speeches that have been released to the press in advance. The exceptions would be someone like Richard Nixon who sometimes (not always) avoided the 'Prompter and just read his speech from paper, which is more honest…how?

Nixon thought using a TelePrompter made him look shifty-eyed on camera…and he may also have been worried about sabotage. It is not a not-uncommon prank on TV shows that use TelePrompters to put something on there that the on-camera reader will read aloud without realizing what he or she is reading until it's out.

I worked a few years on That's Incredible! and we used to do that to the hosts all the time. One time, we were doing the opening where they introduce themselves and just to cause trouble, I had the 'Prompter guy replace "I'm Cathy Lee Crosby" with "I'm Broderick Crawford." Somewhere here, I have a piece of video, probably on Beta, of Ms. Crosby reading the line and then pausing to wonder why she'd just introduced herself as Broderick Crawford.

It may be on the same tape as the clip of Fran Tarkenton reading an admission that he was gay. (Fran, who's a sharp guy, caught on right after he said it…but he's also a good sport so he went right on and read the part about how he'd had sex with every single player on the Minnesota Vikings, especially the Tight Ends…)

I don't know that President Obama is any more or less reliant on TelePrompters than any other Chief Exec. He might use it more often to minimize the slight stammer he has. But the idea that he's unable to speak without it is clearly disproved by the many times he clearly isn't using one…in the presidential debates, for instance, or when he's out in public. Still, some of his detractors want to believe he's not really smart and articulate the same way some want to believe he isn't really the President of the United States because, you know, he was born in Kenya.

If they have any valid point it's when they assert he's reading words that someone else wrote. But that's true of every politician who rises anywhere near the level of President. John F. Kennedy's famous "Ask not" line was from his inaugural address which was largely written by Theodore Sorenson. George W. Bush's famous "Axis of evil" was actually written by David Frum. If we want to start faulting presidents for employing speechwriters, we're going to have to fault all of them.

But the TelePrompter complaint is pretty silly…and it got sillier recently when a Washington Post writer made an issue of Bruce Springsteen using a TelePrompter when performing on stage. A member of Bruce's band, Nils Lofgren, responded with an explanation: The Boss occasionally does completely new numbers, taking requests for tunes he's never performed before. So someone Googles to find the lyrics and tosses them up on the 'Prompter for him. That's quite different. Instead of relying on the device to help him play it safe, Springsteen's using it to try something more adventurous. But really, the response to the Post piece should have been along the line of "Who cares?" Judge what's said or sung, not how the person manages to get it out.