The Inventor of the TelePrompTer Dies

A small but key role in political history.

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Political history lost one of its minor but critical role players last week. Hubert “Hub” Schlafly died on April 20 of undisclosed causes. Few will recognize the name, but his contribution to political communications is enduring. Schlafly, you see, invented the TelePrompTer.

From the Washington Post’s obituary:

Inspiration for the teleprompter came in the late 1940s from a Broadway actor, Fred Barton, who dreamed up a device that would help him remember his lines. He pitched his idea to Irving Kahn, then vice president for radio and television at 20th Century Fox.

Kahn turned to Mr. Schlafly, director of television research at Fox.

“I said it was a piece of cake,” Mr. Schlafly told the Stamford Advocate newspaper in 2008.

The rest is political history. Barton, Kahn, and Schlafly quit their respective jobs and former TelePrompTer Corp. and their new device debuted on a CBS soap opera in 1950. The following year, as I recount in White House Ghosts, Harry Truman mentioned the new gadget to aide Kenneth Hechler and said it bore looking into. Truman never did use it. “He was a little suspicious of any gimmick that made it appear that he was faking his sincerity of communication,” Hechler later recalled.

Dwight Eisenhower would become the first president to use the device, even though during his initial encounter with the machine, while assembling NATO forces in France in 1951, the machine “ran backwards and every way except properly,” an aide of his later recalled. But he still used a TelePrompTer as president, as have most of his successors.

You would hardly know it, however, given the way conservatives focus on President Obama and his use of the TelePrompTer. Typical is this from Hot Air’s Allahpundit: “Imagine how different our country would be if not for [Schlafly’s] invention. Instead of reading ‘Yes we can’ off a glass screen, The One would have had to read it off an index card. Or maybe even memorize it.” The index card was Ronald Reagan’s preferred way of reading speeches. [See photos of the Obamas behind the scenes.]

It’s not clear why reading prepared remarks from index cards is morally superior to reading from a TelePrompTer. I addressed the Obama/TelePrompTer “issue” two years ago:

Let's be clear on the criticism here: The president uses prepared remarks. Horrors.

The teleprompter is a fancy version of a prepared text. Used skillfully, it enables a speaker to deliver a speech more effectively because one does not have to look down periodically to read one's speech. But it's an acquired skill, and not one easily learned, which is why presidents (and others) are sometimes loath to use the thing.

So it's a fault that he values words enough to prepare them in advance and then stick to the rhetorical plan? The fact that he's the most gifted orator of his generation is the residue of hard work and design, not of coasting on raw talent. That's to be commended.

The teleprompter criticism implies that he is merely a fine voice delivering someone else's speeches. But Obama is an accomplished author in his own right and is widely reported to be deeply engaged in the composition of his own speeches. And few who have watched his performances at press events and town hall-type meetings since he took office could argue that he is an empty suit.

It’s an inane criticism, but a mystifyingly enduring one.

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