Conservatives caricature 24/7 Barack Obama’s reliance on the teleprompter. True, his speeches are scripted; but we forget why so: He is very good at reading a prepared script as if he were talking off the top of his head, and he is very bad at actually talking off the top of his head. In the former mode, he sounds pleasantly moderate and mellifluous; in the latter, sort of creepy and awkward.
Yet the result is paradoxical: Obama seems to feel false when he sounds balanced and eloquent reading someone else’s ideas on a teleprompter, and genuine only when he is extreme and ad hoc in his own words. Because teleprompted eloquence is by definition somewhat artificial, Obama believes that his real wit and insight are appreciated only in extemporaneous exposition.
Yet here lies another paradox: His lack of judgment is not evident on the teleprompter, but is only fully illustrated when he is off it and his more extreme ideas are candidly expressed.
All presidents reveal glimpses of themselves through gaffes and off-the-cuff candor. Richard Nixon’s various paranoias were most evident on the secret White House audiotapes. Reagan’s anti-Soviet feelings were behind his open-mike joke “We begin bombing in five minutes.” When George W. Bush blurted out “Dead or alive” or “Bring ’em on,” the impromptu bombast seemed to reflect his cowboy image.
Such revelations are all the more striking in Obama’s case since rarely has a president’s ideology been so at variance with his public persona. His real views have been gleaned mostly from unguarded moments when he talks confidently without prompts — and therefore sounds conniving and shallow.