Donald Trump and his uneasy relationship with the teleprompter
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Donald Trump is used to freewheeling speeches that are a mix of stream-of-consciousness, insults and taunts – and his audiences love him for it. But what happens when he is tied to a prepared script loaded into a teleprompter? The result: a more civil, coherent and uneasy candidate
In the Donald Trump world view there are two kinds of politicians – those who use teleprompters to deliver a speech and those who use memory, smarts and charisma to connect with audiences.
"I've always said, if you run for president, you shouldn't be allowed to use teleprompters – because you don't even know if the guy is smart," Mr. Trump said last October.
He went a step further during the primaries: ridiculing Democratic rival Hillary Clinton's speeches as reading someone else's words off a screen.
"He tried early on, at least in the primaries, to make the use of the teleprompter – to tie that to old-school political elites. So if you were really sincere, if you were a really good leader, you wouldn't need those kinds of things," said Tammy Vigil, assistant professor of communication studies at Boston University.
"So it's kind of a crutch or tool of the political class," she added.
As it turns out, Mr. Trump is now a part of that political class – standing at a podium at least three times in the last two weeks to deliver a speech based on a prepared script loaded into a teleprompter device. The result, say experts who study political communication, is a candidate who sounds more coherent, but looks uneasy.
"His delivery seems unnatural. He doesn't deliver well from a teleprompter because he hasn't practised it yet," said Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a professor of communications and director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.
A freewheeling candidate accustomed to feeding off the energy of rambunctious supporters is suddenly focussed on the teleprompter and what line comes next.
What is driving the Trump campaign to push its candidate to use script-reading devices is unclear. But it is happening against a backdrop of Republican Party Establishment anxieties over Mr. Trump's poor favourability ratings among general-election voters.
"They want him to use the teleprompter for two reasons: one to look better; the other is he has less chance of straying off the reservation," said Robert Lehrman, adjunct professor in the school of communication at American University in Washington, and former speechwriter for vice-president Al Gore.
"That doesn't seem to have worked so far," added the author of The Political Speechwriter's Companion.
Even with a teleprompter in front of the Republican presumptive nominee, there is no telling how far Mr. Trump will go.
The Trump speech on Monday, in the wake of the Orlando massacre, called for an expansive ban on Muslims entering the United States and suggested that American Muslims were hiding terrorists.
Key Republican Party leaders immediately distanced themselves from Mr. Trump's comments. Speeches aside, there is also the matter of his Twitter feed and almost daily call-ins to cable news programs: There is no teleprompter for that.
Videos: Teleprompter Trump
But the overall teleprompter effect is undeniable: Mr. Trump's speeches are more civil and coherent than the speeches at rallies throughout the primaries, said the University of Pennsylvania's Prof. Jamieson.
"Trump's normal mode of extemporaneous speaking is not structurally coherent. It's stream of consciousness, it's associative. But it doesn't develop logical thoughts in paragraph length with evidence supporting argument," she said.
A script, in theory at least, is likely to be more coherent, Prof. Jamieson added – although Mr. Trump has already shown that he can segue from the prepared text and insert his own comments.
"The assumption that if there is a speech on a teleprompter that there will not be more classic Trumpian moments of free association and provocative, unplanned statements is simply wrong," said Prof. Jamieson.
"The likelihood he will actually deliver something from beginning to end on teleprompter as scripted is low in most circumstances where there is a live crowd and he senses he's not getting applause and cheers and enthusiasm based on the scripted speech," she added.
In her view, Mr. Trump will commit to using the teleprompter for some of the big speeches, while the Trump rallies will likely stay as they are: largely unscripted.
The New York real-estate billionaire may also become more natural-sounding when using teleprompters over time.
But U.S. presidential history is replete with examples of presidents that struggled with teleprompter technology going back to Dwight D. Eisenhower in the 1950s.
In a campaign speech in 1952, Mr. Eisenhower could be heard shouting at the person controlling the teleprompter: "Go ahead! Go ahead! Go ahead! Yah, damn it, I want him to move up."
Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter never quite mastered the technology, whereas Ronald Reagan made it look effortless. "But then he was a trained actor," said Prof. Jamieson.
Even Barack Obama, long ridiculed by his Republican rivals for his reliance on teleprompters, shows few signs in his cadence that he is reading a prepared script shown on two briefcase-sized glass panels angled on each side of the podium.
He delivered 1,852 speeches in his first term – of which 699 were given with the help of a teleprompter, according to data compiled by CBS News.
The teleprompter is a no-brainer, according to Mr. Lehrman of American University. By the time Mr. Obama leaves the White House he will have delivered almost 4,000 speeches. It is impossible for Mr. Obama to master such a variety of subjects and deliver daily speeches that are fluent and off-the-cuff, he said.
"So the role of speechwriters is much more important than a generation ago. And teleprompters are necessary because [politicians] don't want to sound like idiots," he added.
There is another value to teleprompter technology – an intimate connection between presidents and their audience.
The in-built camera teleprompter allowed presidents to gaze through the camera and appear to be speaking directly to people in their living rooms, avoiding the need for speeches written out on sheets of paper which required the speaker to look down.
"[Voters] think it's evasive, they think you're dishonest, that you have something to hide. When you're looking at them square in the eye … it feels like they're talking to you," said Mr. Lehrman.
The emergence of teleprompter technology that flanked the podium allowed presidents to appear as though they were speaking to the entire assembled audience and not just the audience at home. It also helped presidents improve their delivery and avoid the appearance of reading off a screen, explained Prof. Vigil of Boston University.
The pressure on Mr. Trump to stick to teleprompter speeches will be intense.
The presumptive nominee will need to cement his position before the party convention in July and fight off any Republican coup attempts, said Prof. Vigil. He will also need to avoid the kind of stage moments that become fodder for Democratic attack ads, she added.
The next big teleprompter test comes over a month from now – when Mr. Trump speaks to the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.
"It's such a big speech, it's such a long speech and it's such a purposeful speech that if he doesn't use a teleprompter he's basically throwing his hands in the air about making a real run for the presidency," said Prof. Vigil.
Whether the freewheeling political insurgent can commit to the daily discipline of teleprompter speeches is another matter.
The key ingredient of any Trump rally is the showman's spontaneity and the audience's expectation that at any given moment Mr. Trump will say or do something outrageous: calling his rivals stupid, mocking a reporter with a disability or mimicking an Indian call-centre operator.
"It's not so much a matter of authenticity as a matter of expectation. Audiences have come to expect high levels of entertainment from a Trump speech and the entertainment value is in large part driven by the unexpected," said Prof. Jamieson.
"He connects with the audiences out of what now is a set of expectations that will be violated by a domesticated teleprompter speech. The spontaneity is going to be gone," she added.
Teleprompter history: Reagan's memorable speech
The space shuttle Challenger explosion in 1986 shocked the world and traumatized television-viewing audiences.
President Ronald Reagan addressed the American public later the same day.
"It is a very important speech not simply because in the moment the country needed the speech, but because in the moment the country needed a person who had the capacity to deliver the speech in a way that masked the presence of an underlying script," said University of Pennsylvania's Prof. Jamieson.
Teleprompter missing: Nixon's televised rebuttal
Senator Richard Nixon was the Republican vice-presidential candidate in the 1952 general election when political scandal erupted.
Mr. Nixon taped a 30-minute television address in which he defended himself against financial impropriety. Mr. Nixon denied taking political gifts, but said he would hold on to one: a dog named Checkers that his children had fallen in love with.
The speech could have benefited from a teleprompter. "He has cards in front of him and he's totally looking down, and it looks awkward," said Mr. Lehrman of American University.
"If you had a teleprompter and you could appear to be looking at people in the eye, you'd be grateful for it," he added.