BY CHARLES MEMMINGER – You often hear complaints from some quarters (i.e. “Republican Quarters”) that President Obama uses teleprompters way too much, that he essentially is “reading” his way through the presidency. Instead of POTUS, which is shorthand for President of the United States, some call him TOTUS (Teleprompter of the United States) or even Teleprompter in Chief.
I’m here to tell you that is just jealousy speaking. Jealousy coming from people who never learned to read out loud. And I have to say that I’m a bit jealous of anyone who can read out loud, myself. It’s not jealousy so much as it is anger at my parents and my elementary school teachers who insisted that I read silently to myself without moving my lips. Yes, entire generations of students were robbed of the ability to read out loud by tyrannical nuns and teachers who cruised up and down the rows of little desks, armed with a wooden ruler or metal pipe that they used to smack the hands of little kids moving their lips during quiet reading time.
Reading to yourself comes fairly easily but not moving your lips while you read is an unnatural act. No matter how much I’d concentrate, my lips would move on their own. It was like, “I do not like green eggs and ham, I do not like them Sam I (SMACK!) Ouch!” But reading out loud or moving my lips while reading silently was finally beaten the hell out of me, along with any possible future career as a violinist. You can’t play a violin with deformed fingers.
Our parents and teachers thought they were doing a good thing teaching us to read silently. That was just the way things were done back in those days. They didn’t know they were robbing us of future careers in broadcast news or political office. Teleprompters hadn’t been invented yet and they had no idea that reading out loud could make you a millionaire or even president of the United States.
President Obama obviously was weaned on teleprompters. His folks had true vision. I wouldn’t be surprised if they hung a little teleprompter over his crib so he could read himself out loud to sleep. (“I will eat them in a house. I will eat them with a mouse. I will eat them here or there. Say! I will eat them anywhere! I do so like green eggs and ham. Thank you! Thank you! Sam, I am. And thank you to good folks in the audience. Good night everybody.”)
It was recently disclosed that First Lady Michelle Obama didn’t learn to read a teleprompter until a few years ago. In preparing to make her pitch in 2009 to the Olympic Committee in Denmark to pick Chicago for the 2016 Olympics, she was taught by a speech coach how to read a teleprompter. I heard she did pretty good even though Rio de Janeiro beat out the United States as the host country. But it’s pretty cool that gave it the ol’ college try.
I eventually had to learn to read a teleprompter as an adult when I started doing a weekly humor segment at KITV morning news. I’d write up my script and e-mail it to the producer. She’d load it up in the teleprompter, which was right under the camera lens. That it looks like your speaking to the camera when you are actually reading. I’d read my stuff out loud to viewers with all the relaxed ease and confidence of a hostage reading a list of demands. I learned one important lesson. Be nice to the person operating the teleprompter controls. If they’re mad at you they can make that text fly. Or stop dead. Or go backward. In other words, make you look a lot more mentally unhinged then you actually are.
I’ve never read a teleprompter in front of a live crowd, choosing instead to slog my way through written notes, which is no easy trick either. Reading out loud is just a hard thing to do if you aren’t trained from childhood.
The advent of hundreds of cable TV channels having to be staffed by hoards of people who can read teleprompters has generated college classes or even entire universities dedicated to teaching people to read out loud. In the PhD courses you learn “advanced teleprompting” where you have to read TWO teleprompters at once, moving your head from screen to screen without making it look too weird.
President Obama has that maneuver down pat. He silkily rotates his head back and forth, never missing a line and, to people watching on TV who can’t see the teleprompters, appearing to be talking to the audience. Most of the time. There’s been a few times the teleprompter got screwed up and he lost his verbal way. It’s not a pretty thing to see, kind of like watching Wile E. Coyote drive off a cliff on an Acme rocket-powered bicycle. (“I will raise taxes on a boat. I will raise taxes on a, uh, shoat? A groat? A coat? A goat? Hey, what’s goin’ on, folks?You’re messin’ up my Green Eggs and Ham Tax report …”)
I regret not teaching my daughter how to read a teleprompter when she was a little girl. If I had, she would probably be a professional TV host making a lot of money and allowing me to retire in the style to which I’m not now going to become accustomed. All because I taught her to read without moving her lips. Bad Daddy.