Magazine article The New Yorker

Rolling Rhetoric

Magazine article The New Yorker

Rolling Rhetoric

Article excerpt

Midway through his speech at the 1952 Republican National Convention, Herbert Hoover began speaking extremely slowly and then muttered, "This damned thing--I could do better without it!" As often in politics, small flubs carry big revelations: the speech was one of the first instances of a politician using--and misusing--a teleprompter, or, as Hoover later called it, "that blasted contrivance." Created by the electrical engineer Hubert Schlafly, Jr., the actor Fred Barton, Jr., and the television executive Irving Berlin Kahn (Irving Berlin's nephew), the teleprompter had debuted two years earlier, on the set of the soap opera "The First Hundred Years." (The scripts were typed on paper scrolls.) Its role in political life has been vexed. Barack Obama's teleprompter reliance was a recurring theme of Republican potshots during the 2008 campaign. This year, Rick Santorum dubbed him "reader-in-chief."

"Most Presidents are dependent on the teleprompter," Steve Carofalo said recently. As the general manager of QTV, which has prompted every R.N.C. since 1960, he should know. Carofalo was seated amid piles of road cases in QTV's midtown offices, where packing was under way for this week's Convention, in Tampa. Carofalo will oversee a staff of eleven and a sixty-box inventory of monitors, glass panels, and backup equipment. "If the microphone goes, they can just yell it out," he said. "But if the prompter goes down you're in the shit."

Carofalo has prompted for everyone from Sting (who stopped him from "decking James Taylor" during a teleprompter-related squabble at a rain-forest benefit) to Ronald Reagan, on the occasion of his eightieth birthday ("He was just so down to earth"). He considers himself a "Bloomberg Republican," but two decades of prompting Conventions has left him disillusioned. In 1992, when he was a registered Democrat, he prompted both parties' Conventions back to back. "I realized it's all rhetoric," he said.

Still, he described the prompter-promptee relationship as an intimate one, like that of a conductor and a musician. The prompter turns a knob that scrolls the text on a monitor. Carofalo said that the best prompters "breathe along with the speaker." If an orator accelerates, the prompter shouldn't necessarily keep pace. "A good operator learns how to rein them in without them knowing."

That wasn't the case, however, with Sarah Palin, in 2008. Palin had bonded with a prompter hired by the McCain staff and asked that he prompt her Convention speech. …

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