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Ed Driscoll

Advantage: Dean Barnett

March 5th, 2009 - 4:34 pm

A couple of days ago, Mark Steyn wrote:

Reading Rich and Jonah re the “raging moderates” alongside Derb and Kathryn on Rush & Co is instructive. Six weeks in, the Obamacon dominoes — David Brooks, Christopher Buckley — are stunned to discover that, in the words of Mr. Brooks, ”Barack Obama is not who we thought he was”.

You don’t say. Instead, he seems to be pretty much what the firebreathing knuckledragging morons thought he was: a Big Government leftie with the most liberal voting record in the Senate.

So the smart guys got suckered, and the bozos were more or less on the money.

Which may be worth keeping in mind during the apparently endless “reinventions” of American conservatism now underway.

One area where the smart guys got suckered was on President Obama’s rhetorical skills, which when given the electronic assist of a Teleprompter, are excellent. But alas, when forced to improvise are…less than excellent, as Ed Morrissey notes today:

When he had the TelePrompters, he made crowds swoon.  When he didn’t, though, things would go terribly wrong.  Most of the fumbles on the campaign trail — such as Iran being a “tiny” and therefore no threat, America not being “what it once was”, came when Obama had to go off script.  Once, his TelePrompter failed for a couple of moments and he stammered until someone apparently fixed it. It’s not exactly news among the media, either, but they didn’t exactly trip all over themselves to report it.

One new media pundit who noticed Obama’s lack of extemporaneous talent was the now sadly and recently deceased Dean Barnett, who wrote on February 12, 2008 in the Weekly Standard:

Usually when Barack Obama gives a major speech, the overdone hosannas from the liberal commentariat follow as surely as night follows day. The American Prospect‘s Ezra Klein wrote of Obama’s post-Iowa victory speech, “I’ve been blessed to hear many great orations. I was in the audience when Howard Dean gave his famous address challenging the Democratic Party to rediscover courage and return to principle . . . But none achieve(d) quite what Obama, at his best, creates. . . . Obama’s finest speeches do not excite. They do not inform. They don’t even really inspire. They elevate. They enmesh you in a grander moment.”

It would be unfair to say this childish lefty gushing has been without cause. Obama is indeed a magnificent speaker. A few days after his Iowa address, I emailed a friend of mine and called it the finest political speech I had ever heard. Then again, I cannot claim to have been in the audience for Howard Dean’s “famous address.”

In spite of Obama’s obvious strengths in this area, questions linger regarding Obama’s gifted speechifying. Do his speeches give us a glimpse at a very special man with a unique vision? Or are we merely witnessing a political one-trick pony? Yes, Obama can turn a phrase better and do more with a Teleprompter than any other modern era politician. But does his special skill set here actually mean anything, or is it instead the political equivalent of a dog walking on its hind legs–unusual and riveting, but not especially significant? Regardless, the liberal commentators have gushed their praise nearly every time Obama has opened his mouth before a Teleprompter the past few months.

It was thus interesting to see Obama climb to the stage at Virginia’s Jefferson-Jackson Dinner on Saturday night. As he strode to the podium, Obama clutched in his hands a pile of 3 by 5 index cards. The index cards meant only one thing–no Teleprompter.

Shorn of his Teleprompter, we saw a different Obama. His delivery was halting and unsure. He looked down at his obviously copious notes every few seconds throughout the speech. Unlike the typical Obama oration where the words flow with unparalleled fluidity, he stumbled over his phrasing repeatedly.

As I recall at the time, the leftwing Blogosphere was, shall we say, less than temperate in their response to Dean’s insight. But today, the center-left Politico Website notes that the Teleprompter is, as they call it, “Obama’s safety net:”

President Barack Obama doesn’t go anywhere without his TelePrompter.

The textbook-sized panes of glass holding the president’s prepared remarks follow him wherever he speaks.

Resting on top of a tall, narrow pole, they flank his podium during speeches in the White House’s stately parlors. They stood next to him on the floor of a manufacturing plant in Indiana as he pitched his economic stimulus plan. They traveled to the Department of Transportation this week and were in the Capitol Rotunda last month when he paid tribute to Abraham Lincoln in six-minute prepared remarks.

Obama’s reliance on the teleprompter is unusual — not only because he is famous for his oratory, but because no other president has used one so consistently and at so many events, large and small.

After the teleprompter malfunctioned a few times last summer and Obama delivered some less-than-soaring speeches, reports surfaced that he was training to wean himself off of the device while on vacation in Hawaii. But no such luck.

His use of the teleprompter makes work tricky for the television crews and photographers trying to capture an image of the president announcing a new Cabinet secretary or housing plan without a pane of glass blocking his face. And it is a startling sight to see such sleek, modern technology set against the mahogany doors and Bohemian crystal chandeliers in the East Room or the marble columns of the Grand Foyer.

“It’s just something presidents haven’t done,” said Martha Joynt Kumar, a presidential historian who has held court in the White House since December 1975. “It’s jarring to the eye. In a way, it stands in the middle between the audience and the president because his eye is on the teleprompter.”

Fortunately for all concerned, the advanced R&D department in the Obama White House is working on a more inconspicuous alternative.

Update: “TelePrompter Story Shows Another Way Old Media Covers for Obama.”

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