TelePrompTers, like many of the folks who rely on them, are deceptively simple.
Two thin panes of grey glass are clipped into place in front of the promptee, and from certain angles it’s hard to tell that anything’s there at all. Underneath the lectern, somewhere, are the guts of the machine, but the whole thing is pretty easy to figure out. The most complicated thing about a TelePrompTer is the name, which is trademarked and therefore idiotic.
The speaker stands at the lectern, and as he or she speaks, the prepared text auto-scrolls along and is projected — invisible to the audience — on the panes of glass. Thus, in the hands of a master, it can look like the speaker is reeling off, from the heart, one dazzling sentence after another, and all without breaking eye contact with the audience.
In 1994, the Vladimir Horowitz of the TelePrompTer, Bill Clinton, delivered the first few minutes of his State of the Union speech off the cuff: Some incompetent had loaded the wrong speech into the machine, and it was several minutes before the mistake was rectified. Clinton, of course, didn’t miss a trick: He extemporized a bit, launched into his speech from memory, caught up to himself, and seamlessly blended his unprepared improvisations into the prepared text that suddenly appeared on the panes.
No one noticed.
Which is the point of the machine in the first place: You’re not supposed to notice the grey glass or the scrolling text or the back-and-forth movement of the speaker’s eyes as he invisibly reads out loud to you. It’s supposed to look fresh and spontaneous and true.
There are two big reasons why politicians use the TelePrompTer. The first is obvious: They don’t want to lose their place in a speech or fumble for words. Politicians, like most people, hate to appear ridiculous. But unlike most people, they have countless opportunities to do so. Every time you open your mouth, someone once said to me, you’re likely to say something stupid. For politicians of all stripes, opening the mouth is pretty much the definition of the gig, so a TelePrompTer is a hedge against the day that the brain ceases to follow along.
Also: Using a TelePrompTer allows the speaker — and here I’m thinking of the Yo-Yo Ma of the machine, Ronald Reagan — to relax into the speech without fretting about transitions and bullet points. Confident that the speech was well constructed and lucid — and, even better, about to appear word for word in an easily legible scroll — Reagan could turn his actor’s attention to equally important things, like connecting to his audience, raising his voice dramatically, thundering with passion about tearing down walls and cutting taxes.
Clinton and Reagan were, we all know, masters of the craft. For them, the TelePrompTer was just one more tool in their box. For a more meat-and-potatoes president — in case I need to specify: George W. Bush — the two panes of grey glass kept him hemmed in and on message.
Bush didn’t use the TelePrompTer to soar. He used it, essentially, the way a beginning piano student uses a Bösendorfer to play “Für Elise” — it was an instrument to get the notes out. Bush’s speech cadence never quite matched the text breaks on the screen, so often he’d sound like the presidential version of Siri, the woman who lives in the iPhone: “The terrorists and evil-doers who want. Americans to live in fear in their. Homes and cities. Will not prevail unless. We falter in our mission thank. You.”
Still, that’s chiefly what the thing was invented for: to make speakers seem in command and articulate. Or at least not totally flummoxed.
#page#But there’s another, equally important reason why so many politicians need a TelePrompTer, and that’s to keep them from suddenly lurching into the truth. Deployed this way, the machine becomes a nagging reminder to the user that under no circumstances should he deviate from the text — not because he’ll appear befuddled or confused, but because he might, instead, say what’s really on his mind. He might slip the bonds of political and diplomatic weasel words and speak from the heart. He might start to say things about small-business owners — “You didn’t build that” — and embassy attacks — “It was a video” — that are all-too-articulate statements to his listeners. They might start to shift uncomfortably, realizing that the speaker just revealed an unattractive truth about himself.
In case I need to specify: President Barack Obama.
The president has a pause problem, that we know. He halts and pauses and umms and uhhs so often when he speaks extemporaneously that it’s impossible, really, to square his performances with his reputation as a gifted speaker. But these are the brakes he’s putting on his brain — these are stutters and stammers designed to slow down the cascade of words, because if he really let them fly, they’d sound a lot more like a far-left law professor and community activist, and a lot less like a guy who can win 270 electoral votes. The TelePrompTer keeps that from happening.
The president also has an accent problem; that we know, too. When speaking — without the machine — in front of an all-African-American crowd, as a recently unearthed video from 2007 reveals, the president loses his clipped consonants and the barking quality of his speech and replaces it with — and I’m treading carefully here — a distinctly more ethnic tone. He gets street. He gets down.
This is a president who needs his TelePrompTer. And he knows it.
The TelePrompTer is a simple piece of equipment with a complicated typography that in masterly hands — Clinton, Reagan — can make a president’s speech into a symphony and in clumsy hands — George W. Bush — can make a president’s speech into, well, a president’s speech.
The TelePrompTer, which Barack Obama uses obsessively — almost, let’s be honest, to a ludicrous degree, as when the White House political operation trucked in the machine for a presidential address to a middle school! — isn’t intended to make him seem more articulate or on top of his game. It’s to keep him from being too honest, too revealing. It’s to keep him from blurting out his left-wing nonsense. It’s to keep him from suddenly sounding like Kanye West at an awards show. It doesn’t help him sell himself and his message. It’s a muzzle.
Which is why when it’s off, he’s in trouble.