Friday, March 20, 2009

Great Teleprompter Moments in U.S. History

A fair number of people -- even liberal Democrats who support him heartily, it seems -- are commenting these days on how absolutely addicted President Barack Obama is to his teleprompter. All recent Presidents have used the handy device to deliver speeches at big events or for moments when every single word must be correct. But Obama apparently uses the teleprompter almost every single time he speaks in public, even at informal events made for off-the-cuff candor. This addiction has caused him at least one embarrassing moment, when a mix-up in the scripts resulted in Obama reading remarks that the Irish Prime Minister was supposed to deliver. As a result, Obama ended up publicly thanking himself for throwing such a great St. Patrick's Day bash before he snapped to it and realized something was wrong.

If I were a comedy television producer, or someone with the technology and crew to put together comedy skits on YouTube, I would create a video called something like "Great Teleprompter Moments in U.S. History," purporting to show that, far from being an aberration, Obama's teleprompter use merely follows a long tradition of U.S. history-makers relying on the wordy little screens at important moments. The video would feature reenactments of scenes such as these:

Oct, 12, 1492
The Bahamas

Christopher Columbus and a small crew emerge from a rowboat and walk the sands of a small island. As soon as the boat is emptied, it is sent back with two sailors to the Santa Maria and returns 30 minutes later, laden with a crude new device called el telepromptero. It is unloaded and set up, and as a crewman cranks the wooden handle that makes the scroll of parchment move upwards, Columbus reads the words claiming the land for Spain.

Sept. 22, 1776
New York City

Captured by the British after the Battle of Long Island, Nathan Hale, America’s first spy, is on the gallows preparing to be hanged. As the noose is placed around Hale's neck, a British soldier gives the order for his death. Before the sentence is carried out, however, a captured American teleprompter is lifted onto the platform and placed in front of Hale. As the crowd listens in respectful silence, Hale reads his stirring final speech, including the famous words, “I only regret that I have but one life to give my country.” Hale is then hanged, and the teleprompter is shot by firing squad.

Nov. 19, 1863
Gettysburg, Pa.

After composing the teleprompter text for the first speech of the day dedicating the Union cemetery at Gettysburg -- a two-hour oration of 13,607 words by Edward Everett -- the writing hand of the government transcriptionist cramps violently, rendering the limb unusable. As he waits for Everett to finish, President Abraham Lincoln orders the pained young man to rest, then proceeds to write out the words of his speech himself. Gazing into the teleprompter under a brilliant Pennsylvania sky, Lincoln delivers the address, which takes the audience by surprise because it is so brief, lasting only two minutes or so. Asked about this later, Lincoln confessed that he had about 30 minutes worth of material he wanted to use, but was only able to write about two minutes worth of text onto the teleprompter before it was his time to speak.

Aug. 5, 1864
Mobile Bay, Ala.

When Admiral David Farragut sees that Union ships ahead of him in the battle in Mobile Bay are turning around after hitting Confederate underwater mines (called torpedoes at the time), he calls for a cabin boy to bring the teleprompter up top. He tells the boy, who has an associate's degree in mass communication, to write him something to say relaying the idea "I wanna go forward, even though we may all get blowed up real good." The boy scribbles two short sentences onto the roll of paper, then as Farragut mounts the command deck, he looks into screen of the sputtering coal-powered teleprompter and shouts to his men, "Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!"

July 20, 1969
The surface of the Moon

As millions watch on television back on Earth, Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong becomes the first man to set foot on the Moon. As soon as his first step is completed, he turns around and looks back at the hatch of the lunar lander, where crewman Buzz Aldrin is doing his best to position a bulky, battery-powered teleprompter (LV-TELEPROMPTSAT, in NASA language) in the opening. As the world waits, Aldrin pushes the power button, the screen lights up, and Armstrong is free to read out loud the now famous words, "That's one small step for [a] man; one giant leap for mankind." It's later revealed that Armstrong neglected to say the word "a" between "for" and "man" because Aldrin had his finger over part of the teleprompter screen.

March 30, 1981
Washington, D.C.

After delivering a speech at the Washington Hilton Hotel, President Ronald Reagan is shot outside the hotel by gunman John Hinckley, Jr. Coughing up blood from a punctured lung, Reagan is rushed to George Washington University Hospital and is prepared for emergency surgery. Nancy Reagan quickly arrives and is escorted into the ER, where aides are frantically setting up a mobile teleprompter unit carried by the Secret Service. As a speechwriter ordered to the scene nervously taps on the keyboard, a visibly pale Reagan summons a smile, looks into the screen and says to his worried wife, "Honey, I forgot to duck." Aides then wheel the teleprompter into Reagan's hospital room, where it stands ready to give the President something to say when he wakes up after the surgery. Speechwriters busily compose a slew of message possibilities ready for use: "I am thirsty. Can I have some water?;" "Boy, am I sore;" "Did George Bush screw anything up while I was under?," and others.

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