Under The Microscope Starting Saturday
The undercard has been cleaned out, the preliminary rounds are all over, and everyone will now start focusing on the main event. This represents both the good news and the bad news for Senator Obama.
It’s good news because he has won his party’s nomination and can start concentrating solely on his Republican opponent. It’s bad news because the media, which has loved him longtime, is about to start going after the story. And the first chapter of the story involves the discovery —at first humorous but then painful— that the feet they have been kissing are actually made of clay.
There’s another good-news-bad-news problem for Senator Obama in this regard. He is a tremendously exciting and inspiring orator. But one new characteristic of the 2008 campaign to date has been the widespread use of teleprompters for speeches and rallies.
Back in the day, there was an impassioned minority among the 37th President’s White House staff that lobbied for the introduction of some contemporary TV techniques to presidential addresses. But President Nixon wasn’t comfortable with what he considered to be the phony intimacy created by the teleprompter, and he insisted on keeping it real by reading his texts page by page.
As a result, his audience sat there watching him read to them, with his eyes breaking contact by constantly shifting up and down between the text and the lens. The used pages either piled up on the boring brown baize anti-glare cover that had been stapled over his glass desktop, or were placed at the bottom of the stack in his hands. At least with the former method the end was, literally, always in sight. (Rose Mary Woods and Marje Acker typed the speeches using an IBM Selectric “Orator” ball, which produced very large and easily-readable letters; this meant that there were only several lines to a page, and that meant that the President had a lot of pages to turn or shuffle.)
So far, Senator. Obama’s skillful and instinctive use of the teleprompter sets him apart from the 97% of politicians who are still clearly reading; not to mention the 2% like Mr. McCain who are not only clearly reading but clearly reading badly.
But now, under the more intense media scrutiny of the main event, Mr. Obama’s off-text and off-teleprompter moments will become a good story and, thereby, fair game. He should be prepared to be hoist on the almost impossibly high standard he himself has set — both in terms of rhetoric and consistency.
Senator Obama will soon learn what will perhaps be the most basic truth of presidential politics to emerge from the 2008 cycle — a home truth that has an undeniably Nixonian ring to it: In the long run, YouTube will never be your friend.
A case in point emerged from the Senator’s speech in southern Virginia last week. He began by giving a truly impressive textbook example of how to read a speech without losing audience connection. But then he went off text and into town meeting mode and the results were less impressive.
When Senator McCain does this kind of thing it’s fodder for everyone from The Daily Show to Washington Week in Review. But one man’s Senior Moment Montage can just as easily be another man’s Blooper Reel, and both can create impressions and leave messages.
Senator Obama, having set the bar so high, will have to be prepared for some treading on his feet of clay. One or two are funny; and everybody gets tired and distracted from time to time. But where campaign coverage is concerned, since Saturday the gloves are off and the microscope is on.