- Presumptive GOP nominee has mocked the device while using it
- ‘When it comes to rhetoric, winging it is often shoddy’
Donald Trump’s fledgling relationship with the teleprompter has drawn mixed reviews, from stilted to dull to, of all things, scripted. The great irony of the effort to rein in his wild side by forcing him to stick to words scrolling on the device is that its debut in politics was aimed at fixing the exact opposite problem.
Herbert Hoover, a famous bore on stage who often stared down at his notes, was somehow persuaded to use the new technology during his address at the 1952 Republican National Convention. Legend has it that the former president might not have enjoyed the experience, muttering, when the text suddenly slowed down, “This damned thing, I could do better without it.”
Trump’s not known to be a fan either, but he’s been parked in front of the machine more and more often -- as he was yesterday in Pennsylvania -- on the advice of campaign managers interested in bridling the presumptive Republican nominee’s trademark stream-of-consciousness tendencies and making him more, well, Hoover-like. The apparatus can work both ways, says Spencer Howard, an archives technician at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum in West Branch, Iowa. “The teleprompter becomes the safe middle. Trump is trying to tone it down, whereas Hoover was trying to spice it up.”
Designed for actors who struggled to memorize their lines, the teleprompter was first employed in 1950 on the CBS soap opera “The First Hundred Years,” according to an oral history with co-inventor Hubert Schlafly. Back then it was written TelePrompTer, as in TelePrompTer Corp., the manufacturer (which by 1970 had become the largest U.S. cable television company, before being acquired by Westinghouse Electric Corp. in 1981). Now the name is genericized, like kleenex or band-aid.
Hoover’s prototype is on display at the museum in Iowa, in an alcove off the recreated Waldorf Astoria apartment where the 31st president lived out his last two decades. It’s a brown plastic cube the size of a shoebox with rounded corners and a cut-out window through which scrolls a ream of paper. Most visitors breeze right by, Howard says, ignorant of its role in history.
In the decades since Hoover’s embrace, the teleprompter has become indispensable for public speakers. They can maintain eye contact and appear to possess a superhuman knack for memorization. Today’s version consists of transparent plates atop poles flanking the speaker, with projectors beaming up text to reflect onto the glass. The intent remains the same, though. “You can stop worrying about what you are going to say,” Hoover’s relic reads. “Instead concentrate on how you are going to say it.”
There are many rules to live by when using a teleprompter. Chief among them: A good technician will keep the script aligned with your natural pace, and text on the monitor should be considered more of a safety net than something to follow word for word, because you never know what’s going to happen.
Malfunctions can lead to awkward moments. President Bill Clinton was forced to ad-lib in 1993 as aides fumbled to replace an errant speech that had been loaded into the machine (a scenario that seems to have inspired a scene in everyone’s favorite political satire, “VEEP”). When emcee Steve Harvey recently declared the wrong winner of the Miss Universe contest, some blamed the teleprompter. Critics jumped on presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton last week because she said “sigh” in a speech instead of, perhaps, actually sighing.
No president has used the device more than Barack Obama. Out of 1,852 speaking events during his first term, he was teleprompted 699 times, according to Mark Knoller, a CBS White House correspondent who’s been keeping presidential statistics for 20 years. That earned Obama a nickname: Teleprompter-in-chief.
Cymbals And Kazoos
Trump’s rise parallels those of other political stars who’ve stolen the spotlight by going off-script, or not having one, including Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann on the right and Bernie Sanders on the left. Trump’s teleprompter transition has been deemed newsworthy because of his anti-teleprompter record. Early on he called for a ban on the contraptions on the campaign trail, and has mocked Clinton for using them -- even after he started doing the same in March.
Teleprompters in politics do have champions. Conservative speechwriter Michael Gerson in a 2009 Washington Post column argued that the use of a “linguistic push-up bra” shouldn’t be viewed as inauthentic. “When it comes to rhetoric, winging it is often shoddy and self-indulgent -- practiced by politicians who hear Mozart in their own voices while others perceive random cymbals and kazoos.”