I have a complaint about our president. Mine differs from the complaints from kooks convinced that he’s a Kenyan-conceived commie committed to conspiracy to convert our country to a caliphate.
It’s about how my president talks to me. More and more, it’s caught my eye that Barack Obama often doesn’t catch my eye. I like people who look at me when talking to me, even when doing so through the miracle of TV and especially when talking about important stuff like war.
The Obama I saw on the campaign trail in 2008 was one of the best public speakers I’d ever seen, right up there with Bill Clinton, Ann Richards and Henry Cisneros, perhaps the best three I’ve seen. Somewhere between the 2008 campaign trail and now Obama became Teleprompter Man, dependent on the clear glass panes that tell him what to say.
This hit a disturbing level as I watched Obama’s Aug. 7 statement about his decision to authorize airstrikes in Iraq. As every president says, there’s no decision they take more seriously than putting our troops in harm’s way. All Americans feel the same way about that. That’s why we want straight talk about that topic.
And that’s why presidents should look straight at us when they discuss such decisions. Obama never did that on Aug. 7.
In eight minutes and 37 seconds, he never once looked directly into the camera and, by extension, at me and at you. Instead, his head swiveled from the teleprompter to his left to the teleprompter to his right. Having too much time on my hands, I went back and counted. The unofficial count I came up with showed he looked to his left 71 times and to his right 71 times.
He looked to his right, not at us, when he said the words I especially expect a president to say into my eyes: “My fellow Americans … .”
To me, teleprompters work well when a president — or anybody — talks to a large crowd. Speakers can appear to be looking at audience members to the left and right when they actually are just reading text from the device. I get it, though I still appreciate folks who can speak from their heart and brain rather than a text that somebody else might have written for them. Could it be that extemporaneous speaking has become too risky for our leaders?
There was no live audience — save for pool reporters — when Obama made his important statement about Iraq. He was in the White House State Dining Room, beneath a portrait of Abraham Lincoln and stripped of the furniture that’s usually in that room.
I covered events in that room when I had pool duty during my White House correspondent days. In this case, what happened in the room was a statement, through television, to the people of America, not to the handful of reporters and staffers in the room.
New York Times correspondent Mark Landler, who was in the room, said it was a “very stripped down room” that evening, devoid of top White House staffers sometimes at such events. “No live audience,” Landler said. “No aides at all, except press wranglers.”
Nevertheless, Obama’s head swiveled between the teleprompters the same way it would if he were speaking to a big hall audience of thousands. I found it distracting.
Neal Spelce knew exactly what I was taking about. Spelce, a former TV news anchor in Texas, has done a lot of speech prep work for big-time pols over the years, including Ann Richards and John McCain.
Spelce, agreeing with me that Obama is a talented speaker, is baffled at how and why the president has become “married” to teleprompters.
“The only reason I can come up with is he is most comfortable with doing that because he has done it so much,” Spelce said. “It doesn’t make sense in trying to communicate your message, especially a very important message like he was talking about. It just flat doesn’t make sense.”
“He was performing. He was not communicating with the most important people, the people he works for,” Spelce said.
Teleprompters, he said, have their place. A statement to the people of America generally is not one of those places.
My go-to expert on presidential communications says Obama’s dependence on teleprompters is odd. Martha Kumar is a political-science professor at Maryland’s Towson University. She does most of her work by showing up daily at the White House and watching presidents and their staffs communicate.
“In his State Dining Room speech he was looking side to side and missed the public entirely,” Kumar said.
“People in the Washington community see his use of the teleprompter as fitting into the story of his lack of interest in people,” she said. “Rather, he likes the general discussion rather than pressing the flesh.”
For comparison, I re-watched President George W. Bush’s March 19, 2003, speech in which he announced our military intervention in Iraq.
It’s easy to go back and criticize the concept. “A campaign on the harsh terrain of a nation as large as California could be longer and more difficult than some predict. And helping Iraqis achieve a united, stable and free country will require our sustained commitment,” Bush said.
“Longer and more difficult” no doubt. And 11 years later, Iraq as “a united, stable and free country” remains aspirational for the current president again called upon to use the military to try to successfully end what his predecessor began.
But know this about Bush: During the entire four minutes and six seconds of his March 2003 speech from the Oval Office, read from a text, he spoke directly into the camera. And that means he spoke directly to me and everyone who was watching.
Whether you agree or disagree with what a president is saying, that’s how it should be said.