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Teleprompt This!, or Anatomy of a Barb

2010 April 22

“Energy.” This was the first item on a checklist of talking points, scribbled upon the hand of the woman whose 2008 Vice Presidential campaign cast her as the nation’s foremost expert on energy – there was evidently every danger she would neglect to mention it, as Al Gore and T. Boone Pickens and other such inferior energy experts have done time and time again. Then came “Budget Tax Cuts.” Apparently oscillating between fiscal conservatism and populism, the former half-term Governor of Alaska seems to have had trouble deciding which cuts she preferred over which others – she chose, for the record, the type that would qualify as Big Government Spending. Last on the list was “Lift American Spirits,” which, unless Jon Stewart was right in musing that she might have been reminding herself to steal a carton of cigarettes, was there apparently to minimize the possibility that her speech would be overly depressing – or else unintentionally uplifting to people of unworthy nationalities. The whole affair smacked of bullshit – Alec Baldwin posited that it was a performance of down-to-earthiness.

This was on February 6, the final night of the National Tea Party Convention in Nashville, TN, an occasion whose enormity so astonished Ms. Palin that she was moved to describe it as “a lot bigger than any charismatic guy with a teleprompter.” Her 40 minute speech was not extemporaneous, though, nor given with the sort of seat-of-your-pants lack of preparation her hand-notes would suggest. Instead, she read from the lectern before her. A charismatic gal without a teleprompter.

Later that month, at another major conservative pep-rally/presidential-campaign-testing-grounds, the Conservative Political Action Conference, speaker after speaker attacked the President’s use of a teleprompter in jabs they read off of teleprompters. Hypocrisy notwithstanding, if there’s one thing conservatives know, it’s that you keep on churning ‘till the butter comes. Tea Party pretty-boy Florida candidate for US Senate Marco Rubio remarked on the fact that Washington was, for the moment, shut down by one of February’s big snowstorms: “And the president couldn’t find anywhere to set up a teleprompter to announce new taxes.” Dick Armey, the power-broker and lobbyist who calls himself a grassroots organizer, had this to say: “By the way, what are these things? I always thought if you knew what you were talking about and had something in your heart to say, you didn’t need them.” International rogue actor and TSA-crippler Sen. Jim DeMint: “You can’t govern from a teleprompter.”

Just how something as innocuous as a teleprompter has managed to become the new bête noire of the conservative movement – or at least a very heavily leaned upon applause line – is a phenomenon worth investigating. Why is President Obama’s use of this technology worthy of ridicule? Why does that ridicule make conservatives wriggle with bliss? What is the implication of the diss? What the meta-message?

1) The primary appeal here is that it engages in that most favorite of all populist activities: bashing intellectuals. Why, Bush could just look into a man’s eyes and see his soul; what need had he of highfalutin’ speech machines? That is certainly the implication Armey was invoking. DeMint’s jab was connected: he was saying the type of thing Dick Cheney was when he accused Obama of “dithering” on his Afghanistan strategy – this man is doing so much thinking, it’s impeding his action. It’s what Palin was getting at when she said, “We need a Commander in Chief, not a professor of law” and also, “Stop lecturing, and start listening.” (Never mind that the president should be an expert on the law and that Palin herself does an awful lot of lecturing and, as far as I can tell, no listening: she knows as well as anyone in politics that it ain’t what you eat, it’s the way how you chew it.) If the guy is over there in his ivory tower, where people prepare their remarks (rather than being caught up in things like Bush’s “Fool me once” poetry or Michelle Bachmann’s citation of something called Hoot-Smalley), then he’s obviously more cut out for cavorting with Wall and K Streets than raising pitchforks with We The People.

But anti-intellectual bias cannot be the only factor at play here, because Herman Cain’s teleprompter dig at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference invoked just the opposite frame. Having quoted the Declaration of Independence, Cain congratulated himself: “And did you notice I said that second paragraph without a teleprompter?” That would seem to accuse President Obama of having so meager an intellect that he cannot recite basic phrases from memory – one wonders, then, how he mopped so thoroughly the floor with the GOP during question time in Baltimore. The crowd was so giddy about another teleprompter joke that they ignored Cain’s hitch-slipping implication, hooting and hollering anyway.

2) Perhaps it is because the right-wing is intent on a narrative in which President Obama does not think for himself, but is rather a marionette in the workshop of whatever bogeyman puppeteer is en vogue (Bill Ayers, George Soros, Karl Marx, &c.). Obama’s recitation of words that appear as fleetingly as in mid-air and on so intangibly digital a form would feed that idea. In that case, Obama does not have ideas to present or a philosophy, just empty platitudes. (Gov. Tim Pawlenty, in introducing the Palin/Bachmann clowder, referred to President Obama’s “great teleprompter language of hope and change.”) Furthermore, as every good conservative knows, there is only one acceptable disembodied voice whence to get one’s thoughts.

3) There might also be a hint of old-school reactionary conservatism there. The teleprompter, after all, is a piece of futuristic technology, unlike paper, gut checks, hard work and the American Way. And the tea party wants to return to a simpler time, before globalization, before feminism, before widespread acceptance of homosexuality (before the civil rights movement, before the New Deal, before…) – Bush was, to them, a real man of the earth. While Obama was making friends with teleprompters, Bush was clearing brush. Ron Paul wants to go back on the Gold Standard; Glenn Beck wants you investing in seeds; the teleprompter feels too New World Order for the ideological decedents of Timothy McVeigh to stomach.

4) Ultimately, the Republicans have always shown themselves to be fans of the “make your opponent’s strength his weakness” strategy that successfully cast rich-boy cheerleader George W. Bush as a manly man and war-hero John Kerry as a measly pansy. What’s the one department where no one among the Republicans can match Obama? Speechmaking. The man has, in the six years he’s been a figure of national prominence, already given three or four of the most important and stirring speeches in modern political history. Sarah Palin can begin a speech, as she did at the Tea Party Convention, with “I am so proud to be American. Thank you. Gosh, thank you.” Obama will spit some Whitman or something. The only way to bridge the yawning oratorical gap between the parties is to devalue oratory itself. Impulsive reactions, sound-bites and shouting win the day in this conservative model, not considered argumentation, properly constructed and credibly delivered. Ethos, logos and pathos be damned: bring on the “Drill, baby, drill!”

It doesn’t, of course, help that teleprompters have been so conspicuous at times, once falling over, once looking Very Out Of Place in a classroom, from which the President addressed a nation. But none of that should be dispositive — we’ll know the Republicans have a point when someone is able to trick the President into ending a speech with, “I’m Ron Burgundy?”

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