The Magazine

The Ultimate Assistant to the President

From the Scrapbook.

May 16, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 33 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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In the midst of the Osama bin Laden news last week occurred one of those quiet cultural transitions that catch The Scrapbook’s attention. We are speaking of the death, in Stamford, Connecticut, of 91-year-old Hubert J. Schlafly Jr.

Barack Obama, teleprompter

The president, with teleprompter

AP / Gerald Herbert

Mr. Schlafly, who so far as The Scrapbook is aware was not closely related to Phyllis Schlafly of Eagle Forum fame, was the onetime “director of television research” at 20th Century Fox. One day, in the late 1940s, he received a request from the vice president for radio and television at Fox, Irving Kahn. Kahn had been talking to a Broadway actor named Fred Barton, who told him that he had an idea for a mechanical device that could help him remember his lines. Could Hub Schlafly build the contraption conceived by Fred Barton?

“I said it was a piece of cake,” Schlafly told the Stamford Advocate a few years ago. He attached a motorized scroll inside a suitcase shell, printed half-inch letters on the scroll, and set the device beside some television cameras. The teleprompter was born. 

Schlafly, Kahn, and Barton must have instantly realized they’d hit the jackpot, for all three quit their jobs and founded the TelePrompTer Corp., which revolutionized not only television production—it was first used on a soap opera in 1950—but also politics as well. Former President Herbert Hoover was the first prominent politician to use a teleprompter, in a speech at the 1952 Republican national convention, and Lyndon Johnson was the first president to use a teleprompter routinely in public appearances.

Since then, of course, presidents, game show hosts, news readers, and just about anybody who regularly speaks into television cameras has come to rely on Schlafly’s device. In its early days, there was a certain stigma attached to teleprompter dependence, and some presidents used them more than others; but the stigma has long since vanished. Indeed, so ubiquitous has it become that, in 1994, when Bill Clinton realized that his teleprompter contained the wrong speech during an address to Congress, he was obliged to improvise for several minutes. When it was revealed that Clinton had winged it on national television, he was widely congratulated for not melting down.

Which makes the case of President Obama even more intriguing. Among the president’s many magical qualities, of course, is his reported high intelligence and golden tongue. He is admired, especially in journalistic circles, for his oratory and lawyer’s gift of gab. But Obama is also unusually dependent on teleprompters—the apparatus can be seen just about anywhere he speaks, even to children—and when he is obliged to say a few words in public without a teleprompter, he is surprisingly inarticulate. The smooth, teleprompted operator suddenly sounds tongue-tied, confused, even a little panicky. 

Which proves, in The Scrapbook’s estimation, one of two things—maybe both: that the influence of the teleprompter on American politics has been nearly as profound as the invention of aerosol hairspray; and that Barack Obama is not quite as miraculous as he—and E.J. Dionne and Maureen Dowd and Jonathan Alter and all the other camp-followers—seem to believe.

Giving Interrogators Their Due

On Sunday, May 1, a team of Navy SEALs raided Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan and killed him. Over the next several days, we learned about the intelligence that made the assault possible. It started, according to senior intelligence officials, with the nom de guerre of bin Laden’s courier and housemate​—​Ahmed al-Kuwaiti. That crucial piece of information was the first step on the long, difficult path to bin Laden. Without it, according to a U.S. intelligence official The Scrapbook’s colleague Stephen F. Hayes spoke with last week, Osama bin Laden would be alive today. The intel came from captured al Qaeda terrorists who had been subject to the enhanced interrogation techniques (EITs) employed by the CIA during George W. Bush’s presidency. 

But if you get your news only from the New York Times, the self-styled newspaper of record, you would have read on Wednesday that information from enhanced interrogations played only a “small role at most” in finding bin Laden.

The Times is heavily invested in this storyline, having claimed repeatedly over the years that such interrogations are ineffective. Never mind that the CIA’s own declassified assessment of the interrogations demonstrates the opposite: Some 70 percent of what the U.S. intelligence community knows about al Qaeda came from detainees subject to enhanced interrogation, and Khalid Sheikh Mohammad willingly gave “terrorist tutorials” to his interrogators after he was broken.

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