Columns

Voters Don't Give a Toss Who Uses a Teleprompter

By: Nancy Smith | Posted: March 14, 2012 3:55 AM
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Nancy Smith

Try to stay on the page, candidates. Who uses a teleprompter and who doesn't is not a campaign issue. America doesn't care.

What is this obsession Newt Gingrich and now Rick Santorum have about delivering a speech without notes?

Does winging-it make them more butch?

Is there something un-American, or perhaps even dishonest, about a presidential candidate who reads his speech off a rolling prompter invisible to his audience?

Apparently. At least in Santorum's eyes.

Over the weekend, speaking to a gathering in Gulfport, Miss., the former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania intimated that speechwriters are the enemy of truth, and he said that presidential candidates should be prohibited from using teleprompters.

“I’ve always believed that when you run for president of the United States,” he said, “it should be illegal to read off a teleprompter, because all you’re doing is reading someone else’s words to people.”

He explained himself this way: “You’re voting for someone who is going to be the leader of our government. It’s important for you to understand who that person is in their own words, see them, look them in the eye. . . . You’re choosing a leader. A leader isn’t just about what’s written on a piece of paper.”

True. But neither is a leader about talking to the nation off the top of his head.

It's doubtful that Santorum's unfiltered, mostly rambling off-the-cuff speeches won the Alabama and Mississippi GOP primaries for him on Tuesday. From what I can see, it was his heart-of-Dixie appeal that won the day -- his strong social-conservative agenda and his promise of economic prosperity. See "Rick Santorum Wins Close Battles in Alabama and Mississippi."

History will bear me out here: Santorum as a presidential candidate stands pretty much alone in his disdain for speechwriters and his low regard for discipline in communication.

With the possible exception of Abraham Lincoln, no American president since George Washington could finely craft his own policy, deliver it in a speech with conviction and inspire a nation -- at least, not without help from professionals. Not even the verbose Bill Clinton could do it.

Ronald Reagan, the president Santorum most admires, had a stable of half a dozen wordsmiths. Emmet J. Hughes was the voice behind Dwight D. Eisenhower; Ted Sorensen, behind John F. Kennedy.

Let's say Santorum wins the primary and wins the presidency in November. No matter how much he longs to be a do-it-yourself, speech-writing president, it would be virtually impossible. Television has made it so. Herbert Hoover, for example, made an average of around eight public appearances per month; Clinton made 28. Clinton's speeches -- and yes, he was given to ad-libbing in the middle of them -- had to come from somewhere.

It's difficult for me to understand how any modern president can be successful without an appreciation of the importance of communication. The best presidents have a strong sense of when and how to communicate with the public -- and know how to use speechwriters to best achieve that goal. Reagan was a master of the game.

True, Gingrich was the first to diss the teleprompter -- which, by the way, is nothing more than an aid in delivering a smooth television speech. But Gingrich's teleprompter mention was lightning years more understandable than Santorum's.

In November 2011, when the former speaker of the House -- a gold-medal debate whiz -- was a front-runner in the presidential race, he wanted to point out that he could go toe to toe with silver-tongued Barack Obama any day of the week. After challenging the president to a series of live debates, he used Obama's well-publicized reliance on teleprompters to say, in other words, Hey, I'm electable because in a debate, I can sink you like a bucket.

What Gingrich actually said is this: "If (the president) wants to use a teleprompter (in the debates), then it would be fine with me." Following cheers and laughter, he added, "It has to be fair. If you [were] to defend Obamacare, wouldn't you want a teleprompter?"

I hope Santorum thinks through his disdain for speechwriters and teleprompters and realizes that spontaneity isn't synonymous with honesty.

It is, after all, the president who has ownership of his speeches, no matter how many writers are involved or how many teleprompters. It is the president who gives the speech and lends his office's authority to its words. He's the one who gets credit or approbation for what he says.

Reach Nancy Smith at nsmith@sunshinestatenews.com or at (850) 727-0859.

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