Republicans used to make great fun of President Barack Obama for using a teleprompter, a device that allows a speaker to read a script displayed on a one-way mirror. The speaker sees the words on the mirror, but you don’t.
“Step away from the teleprompter and do your job,” Sarah Palin once said about Obama. “You can’t govern from a teleprompter,” then-Sen. Jim DeMint, a Republican from South Carolina, said in a speech.
Gosh, I wonder if they’re rethinking those words.
That’s because Republicans of all stripes are now begging presumptive nominee Donald Trump to use a teleprompter when he speaks. Teleprompter Trump is good Trump, they say.
As you may know, I used to earn a living reading words from a teleprompter. It requires skill, and I wasn’t very good at it. The sentences scroll up the mirror as you read them, often breaking in awkward places. Strange pronunciations can be a disaster. And remember — you can’t act as if you’re reading.
Some people do it very well. They’re called news anchors, and they’re handsomely rewarded for their talent.
Even the best anchors, though, will tell you the teleprompter provides the illusion of omniscience, not the reality. Anchors typically read words written by someone else. And viewers are pretty smart: If it looks like an anchor doesn’t actually understand what he or she reads from the teleprompter, the news reader’s credibility plummets.
Which brings us back to Trump.
Let’s face it, Republicans aren’t asking their candidate to use a teleprompter because they’d like him to deliver his speeches more smoothly. They want him to read words written by someone else because they think ad-lib Trump is bad Trump. Written speeches, they believe, might help the candidate seem more presidential.
Perhaps. Reading words from a one-way screen may indeed make the Republican seem more serious, just like an anchorman. Eventually, though, voters will want to know whether Trump knows the meaning of the words he reads.
So far the evidence is mixed. Teleprompter Trump is most convincing when hammering Hillary Clinton’s many foibles; gaming the system is something both candidates know a lot about. When Trump starts reading about tax policy or the environment, though, it’s clear he’s wandered away from his intellectual comfort zone.
Clinton reads from a teleprompter too, of course, and she does it better than Trump. No one doubts Clinton knows what she’s talking about when it comes to obscure policies or issues.
Yet Clinton has a different problem. Many Americans, even some of Clinton’s supporters, hear calculation in her scripted words, not conviction. She’s like the news anchor who grimaces at a sad story, or shakes his or her head at some weird feature piece. We recognize the emotion, but is it real? Or is it a practiced illusion?
Watch Clinton’s response this week to the decision not to prosecute her for misuse of her email system. The FBI says her actions were “extremely careless,” but not criminal. Will she apologize for the mistake? Will anyone believe her if she does?
This year, to an extraordinary degree, voters will be asked to consider the candidates’ judgment, intelligence and integrity when casting their presidential ballots. It may be the most issueless campaign in memory.
We can’t understand those qualities by watching either candidate read from a teleprompter. We’ll have to look through the mirror to see the person on the other side.