After years of Republican attacks, Teleprompters have gone on the offensive.
The setting could not have been more dramatic. It was the Fourth of July, and President Donald Trump was addressing the country from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. As rain came down over Washington, D.C., and military aircraft hummed overhead, the president recounted some of the greatest deeds in the life of our nation.
And then it happened.
The Armed Forces Chorus has just finished singing the Marines’ Hymn, and Trump was starting in on a section of his speech about how the U.S. Army emerged out of the Revolutionary War, going on to fight heroically in the War of 1812.
“It rammed the ramparts. It took over the airports. It did everything it had to do,” Trump said of the Continental Army. “And at Fort McHenry, under the rockets’ red glare, it had nothing but victory. And when dawn came, their star-spangled banner waved defiant.”
It was a rousing kicker after several lines of dry historical context. There was just one problem: “the airports.” As Trump himself pointed out earlier in the same speech, there was not an airplane — let alone many airplanes that would necessitate an entire port — until the 20th Century.
The slip up set the chattering classes buzzing Thursday night and Friday morning, filling the ordinarily sleepy post-vacation news cycle with think pieces about the larger significance of Trump’s faux pas and the inevitable Twitter memes.
“The Teleprompter went out,” Trump explained to reporters when asked about the slip up Friday morning. “It kept going on, and then at the end it just went out, it went kaput. So I could’ve said — and actually, right in the middle of that sentence, it went out. And that’s not a good feeling.”
That seemed to put everything to rest. It was a simple explanation for a seemingly innocuous gaffe — the kind any of us could be liable to make under the circumstances.
Then, as certain and inexorable as the passage of time itself, someone found a tweet, casting the shadow of a deeper, more sinister plot over the scene.
Why does @BarackObama always have to rely on teleprompters?
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 19, 2012
Let’s take a step back. Teleprompters are sheets of glass that stand on poles in front of and to either side of a speaker. The speech is projected onto the glass, allowing the speaker to read it without turning away from the audience.
Politicians of all stripes have used Teleprompters for decades. But Republicans spent years criticizing former President Barack Obama for leaning on the devices when he spoke rather than going off-the-cuff. The attack carried so much weight that some Republican presidential candidates eschewed the Teleprompter altogether during the 2012 campaign season.
“If you use it now, you’re like Obama,” media strategist Fred Davis told The Washington Post in October 2011. “It’s a negative because it’s a sign of inauthenticity. It’s a sign that you can’t speak on your own two feet. It’s a sign that you have handlers behind you telling you what to say.”
Indeed, many Republicans went on to make political hay of Obama’s penchant for speaking on-the-Teleprompter. Campaigning for the Republican nomination in 2012, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said he could “tell the truth without notes better than he [Obama] can dissemble on a teleprompter.” Former Rep. Michelle Bachman (R-MN) blamed one of her own verbal slip ups on her decision to “never again use President Obama’s teleprompter.”
Even then Vice President Joe Biden got in on the act after his Teleprompter blew over during a speech at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, in May 2009.
“What am I going to tell the president when I tell him his Teleprompter is broken?” Biden quipped. “What will he do then?”
The 2009 incident is especially alarming, and it raises the same troubling question as Trump’s tweet from 2012: Was Trump’s faux pas Thursday a simple technical glitch?
Or is it possible that, after years of attacks from both the right and the left, Teleprompters have suddenly decided to go on the offensive?
Perhaps there are even deeper, more sinister, explanations, as national security commentator Malcolm Nance pointed out on Twitter:
— Malcolm Nance (@MalcolmNance) July 5, 2019
Whatever the case, as Airportgate continued to unfold Friday, one thing was certain: It’s the Telemprompters’ world now. We just live in it.
This piece has been corrected to reflect that Michelle Bachman is a former U.S. congresswoman from Minnesota.