Modi, teleprompter and talking heads: Brief history of a love-hate relationship

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It started in 1948 as a clunky jugaad: a roll of printed paper propped up against half a suitcase. But soon it became a neat little machine generations of politicians have loved: two nearly invisible plates of glass angled at a 45-degree slant at either side of their podiums that they can read off.

The teleprompter’s popularity is understandable. It conveys the impression that the reader — most often the leader — has memorised his or her speeches and are connecting with the audience.

But even neat little machines fail. And when the machine in question is a politician’s teleprompter, it becomes a political event in itself.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s teleprompter malfunction during his World Economic Forum speech in Davos has set off quite a kerfuffle. His opponents are overjoyed. His supporters, who regularly make fun of Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s speech bloopers, are embarrassed.

There is something that the Congress’s IT cell, which has gone on overdrive, must remember. A teleprompter failure during an international event is not going to dent the prime minister’s reputation as an outstanding orator. Just like its ‘chowkidar char hai’ campaign to convince the nation that Modi is corrupt badly backfired in the 2019 elections, it will be enormously dim to take on the PM over his oratory. Whether they like Modi or not, Indians can readily pull out of the archives of their memory dozens of his spontaneously devastating speeches, some of them made in Parliament.

Modi’s core strengths like a clean image or brilliant oratory are unassailable. The Opposition must identify his weaknesses and focus on those instead.

Also, attacking the prime minister on a speech interrupted by a technical glitch is only going to reopen the treasure pit of Rahul Gandhi’s oratorial blunders. It will be a straight self-goal.

Modi was absolutely right in stopping his speech midway when the teleprompter failed. Policy or diplomatic speeches at global events require the cold accuracy of facts and figures, unlike election speeches which run on the steam of rhetoric. Which is why every world leader relies on the teleprompter.

American Presidents, for instance, have a chequered history with teleprompters.

Dwight D Eisenhower was the first US president to address the nation with a teleprompter during the 1952 presidential campaign. He was once heard scolding the machine for moving too slowly during his speech.

Ronald Reagan was very comfortable reading his speech off the dual screens of a teleprompter. Bill Clinton once arrived at the lectern for the State of the Union speech and found that the wrong speech was uploaded. He waited for the right one to be loaded. George W Bush used to be visibly uneasy and nervous while speaking off a teleprompter.

In 2008, Sarah Palin improvised admirably when the teleprompter broke during her vice presidential speech. The teleprompter once failed the governor Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2004.

During one of his campaign speeches in 2016, Donald Trump stopped, pointed at the screen, and said: “By the way, these teleprompters haven’t been working for the last 20 minutes. And I actually like my speech better without teleprompters.” He then grabbed one of the transparent boards and broke it.

During a recent speech, President Joe Biden mistakenly read out “end of quote” off the teleprompter, which was meant as a helpful note to him.

But the US president who relied the most on the teleprompter, to the point of being frequently mocked by Republicans, was Barack Obama.

Here is what the New York Times wrote about him: “Presidents have been using teleprompters for more than half a century, but none relied on them as extensively as Obama has so far. While presidents typically have used them for their most important speeches to the nation - an inauguration, a State of the Union or an Oval Office address - Obama uses them for everyday routine announcements, and even for the opening statement at his news conference.”

It wrote: “For Obama, a teleprompter means message discipline, sticking close to his intended words. Every president uses prepared remarks, of course, often reading from paper or note cards. But while some of his predecessors liked to extemporise, Obama prefers the message to be just so. After all, he is a best-selling author who has had a hand in writing many of his major speeches, so his aides say he feels a certain fidelity to the crafted text.”

There are many videos of Obama, considered one of the finest orators, struggling without a teleprompter, or stopping a speech because it was not working.

Modi’s oratory is proven on almost every playing field. A machine glitch at a global event won’t take away much from that.

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Modi, teleprompter and talking heads: Brief history of a love-hate relationship
Modi, teleprompter and talking heads: Brief history of a love-hate relationship
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