By Robert Schlesinger
Rick Santorum has a message problem, an inability or unwillingness to focus on core issues while emphasizing titillating dead-end ones. Incredibly, I'm not talking about birth control but instead teleprompters.
Campaigning in Mississippi recently, the former Pennsylvania senator asserted that "when you run for president of the United States, it should be illegal to read off a teleprompter. Because all you're doing is reading somebody else's words to people."
On one level, he was attacking former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the (still, really) GOP front-runner. You can hear galled frustration in Santorum's dismissal of "reading somebody else's words." He speaks conservatism as a native but he is being lambasted as too moderate by a coreless conservative of convenience mouthing paint-by-the-numbers platitudes (provided by a campaign speechwriter whose 2008 client was vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin). Somebody else's words, indeed.
But on a broader level, Santorum was also attacking President Obama, taking a peculiar GOP condition to its logical, if extreme, conclusion. I refer to Teleprompter Derangement Syndrome, or Prompterphobia. It is the most consistent and mystifying attack the right levels against Obama. It has induced Newt Gingrich to vow to let Obama have a teleprompter in the Lincoln-Douglas debates the former speaker wants. It's why Santorum has referred to the president as the "reader in chief." It has spurred a cottage industry of gag websites and led Arkansas GOP Rep. Steve Womack last year to propose eliminating funding for Obama's teleprompter as a budget-cutting measure.
It's a strange obsession because it's inane. Teleprompters are tools. Sure they're high tech if you've just emerged from the 1950s (which might explain the GOP's fascination with them), but ultimately they're just a medium for prepared remarks, substantively no different from a sheet of paper on a lectern. A teleprompter can't magically imbue a poor speech with additional spellbinding qualities. Criticizing someone for using a teleprompter is like berating him for using a microphone, or arguing that there's something wrong with writing on a word processor rather than with a quill and ink.
Teleprompters are tools that every president since Dwight Eisenhower has used, some with greater comfort than others. Richard Nixon preferred to memorize outlines and then speak without prepared remarks on hand; Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush liked to work off note cards; Obama seems most comfortable in front of a teleprompter. In all cases, the medium is not the message-the message is the message.
Ultimately the teleprompter criticism boils down to people having a problem with the idea that a president or candidate has prepared remarks in advance and, perhaps, done so with assistance. When we're talking about the presidency and the bully pulpit, care and skill in selecting the right words are admirable and necessary qualities. And preparing remarks ahead of time allows the president's staff to make sure he's got the facts on his side.
But using speechwriters and preparing speeches ahead of time doesn't make Obama (or any of his dozen immediate predecessors) a cipher regurgitating "somebody else's words." When a president delivers a speech, putting the authority of his office behind those words, he takes ownership of them. And no president (or competent candidate) is a passive recipient of a script foisted on them by speechwriters or other aides. Good speechwriters help their boss elevate his or her voice, not reinvent it.
Conservatives who deride Obama's teleprompter as a crutch, without which he would be helpless, seem unaware that virtually all modern presidential remarks are prepared in advance. The main difference with Obama involves stagecraft: A teleprompter is a visible reminder of this preparation as opposed to a typed speech sitting on the lectern.
And consider, too, how often a president must deliver remarks. When Herbert Hoover was president, at the dawn of the radio age, he averaged eight public appearances a month. When John F. Kennedy switched on the television age, he made 19. During Bill Clinton's first term, as cable television became dominant, that figure had risen to 28. And as Obama tried to punch through the noise of the Internet age, he made about 42 appearances per month during his first two years in office, according to stats compiled by CBS News's Mark Knoller. Presidents speak more often and with a wider reach than ever before. Of course they should carefully prepare in advance.
Santorum neither employs a speechwriter nor prepares his remarks in advance. He seems to view this as a mark of authenticity. "When you're running for president, people should know not what someone's writing for you after they've had pollsters and speechwriters test it and focus group it and all this kind of stuff," he said. "It's important for you to understand who that person is, in their own words." But as Michael Gerson, the George W. Bush speechwriter-turned-Washington Post columnist (and former U.S. News-er) pointed out last week, "The craft of rhetoric involves the humility of repeated revision. The careful appeal to an audience is a form of courtesy."
It's not, as Gerson notes, a courtesy that Santorum extends to his primary night audiences. His stubborn quest for oratorical authenticity is redolent of Jimmy Carter, another pious politician wary of rhetorical artifice, and leads to meandering, muddled messages and wasted opportunities. Where it won't lead is to the bully pulpit.