Michael Gerson

WASHINGTON -- It is amazing how swiftly a presidential tendency turns from observation to joke to meme. Barack Obama -- called "the most eloquent political speaker of our time" -- has become known as the teleprompter president.

The issue gathered momentum when Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen read 20 seconds of Obama's teleprompter remarks at a White House ceremony before realizing his mistake. Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, at her nomination as head of Health and Human Services, was made to wait in awkward silence while Obama's teleprompter was adjusted. Then came Obama's use of the big-screen autocue at Tuesday night's news conference.

Coverage by Ron Fournier of The Associated Press began: "What kind of politician brings a teleprompter to a news conference?" A recent Politico story asserted, "President Barack Obama doesn't go anywhere without his teleprompter," calling it a "crutch." And in a popular new blog, Obama's teleprompter playfully chronicles its day.

If anyone is to blame for this technological dependence, it is probably Fred Barton, an actor from the 1950s. As author Laurie Brown tells the story, Barton was having trouble memorizing the vast number of lines required for live television. So he conceived of a scrolling screen of typed text -- an idea he shared with Irving Berlin Kahn (the composer's nephew) and Hub Schlafly at 20th Century Fox. Soon the device was used by Milton Berle and actors in various soap operas. In 1952, Schlafly got a call from a man identified simply as the "Chief" who wanted a meeting at the Waldorf-Astoria. It turned out to be former President Herbert Hoover, who ended up using a teleprompter for his remarks at that year's Republican convention.

For politicians, the teleprompter has always been something of an embarrassing vice -- the political equivalent of purchasing cigarettes, Haagen-Dazs and a Playboy at the convenience store.

This derision is based on the belief that the teleprompter exaggerates the gap between image and reality -- that it involves a kind of deception. It is true that there is often a distinction between a president on and off his script. With a teleprompter, Obama can be ambitiously eloquent; without it, he tends to be soberly professorial. Ronald Reagan with a script was masterful; during news conferences he caused much wincing and cringing. It is the rare politician, such as Tony Blair, who speaks off the cuff in beautifully crafted paragraphs.

Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
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