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Santorum’s war on teleprompters

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Michael Gerson
March 13, 2012
— The teleprompter is again center stage in American politics—as, come to think of it, the darn thing often is.

Rick Santorum, who is partial to the prohibition of many things, argues that the demon autocue should be next.


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


On this issue, Santorum cannot be accused of hypocrisy. His Super Tuesday victory speech, delivered in Steubenville, Ohio, did not make use of a teleprompter—or any other form of rhetorical discipline. It was a 20-minute ramble of lame jokes, patriotic platitudes and half-developed campaign themes. On the evidence of these remarks, Santorum’s guiding philosophy is “free enterprise” and “free people” held together by free association. He vaguely honored Ronald Reagan for saying inspiring words without bothering to contribute any of his own. He praised the “greatest generation” without crafting a single phrase that captured their accomplishments.


That night was, perhaps, the high-water mark of Santorum’s presidential campaign—the culmination of nine months of effort and sacrifice. But the moment found him, quite literally, speechless. The world will not long remember, or even briefly recall, the Steubenville address.


Santorum’s condemnation of scripted communication has understandable political motivations. Lampooning President Obama’s reliance on the teleprompter is a popular conservative sport. And Santorum—fresh from spewing on John Kennedy’s shoes and questioning the value of a college education—has an interest in praising the virtues of impulsive, unfiltered language. It is the backhanded praise of his own failures.


But Santorum is also making a public argument.


“You’re voting for someone who is going to be the leader of our government,” he says. “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.”


The great enemies of authenticity, contends Santorum, are “speechwriters.”


I’m under no illusions about the popularity of my former profession. But let me rise in defense of “what’s written on a piece of paper” and the people who help produce it.


The idea that a leader should carefully craft his public words, sometimes with the advice and help of others, is not particularly new. Alexander Hamilton and James Madison were known to polish George Washington’s prose. William Seward contributed to Lincoln’s first inaugural, though it was Lincoln’s edits that gave the speech its music. Sam Rosenman captured FDR’s distinctive voice, as Ted Sorensen did for JFK. Richard Goodwin helped Lyndon Johnson rise to the rhetorical demands of the civil rights struggle.


“At times, history and fate,” said Johnson, “meet at a single time in a single place to shape a turning point in man’s unending search for freedom. So it was at Lexington and Concord. So it was a century ago at Appomattox. So it was last week in Selma, Alabama.”


Such collaboration is not a species of fraud. It is a process in which a leader refines his own thoughts, invites suggestions by trusted advisers and welcomes the contributions of literary craft to political communication. A very few presidents—Lincoln may exhaust the category—have no need of consultation on policy or style. But political mortals generally benefit from it.


Santorum’s case for extemporaneousness depends on a questionable premise. He assumes that authenticity is identical to spontaneity. By this standard, the most authentic political communication would come after rousing a candidate from bed in the middle of the night, turning him around three times, and asking him to share the deepest convictions of his heart. This elevation of instinct and impulse is deeply unconservative—akin to arguing that the only authentic love is free love. Conservatives generally assert that discipline and preparation reveal authentic commitments, not discredit them.


It is actually a form of pride—in a politician or anyone else—to believe that every thought produced by the firing of one’s neurons is immediately fit for public consumption. The craft of rhetoric involves the humility of repeated revision. The careful appeal to an audience is a form of courtesy—a respect not shown to the unfortunate people of Steubenville.


But a prospective president should care about rhetoric for deeper reasons: Because language and leadership are inseparable. Because history is not shaped or moved by mediocre words.


Michael Gerson is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group; email michaelgerson@washpost.com.

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