Rick Santorum constantly criticizes the president for his use of teleprompters. He recently said campaigning in Mississippi: “I’ve always believed that when you run for president of the United States, it should be illegal to read off a teleprompter, because all you’re doing is reading someone else’s words to people.” This struck a nerve in Michael Gerson, former chief speechwriter and senior policy advisor to George W. Bush. Gerson responded in a Washington Post Op-Ed piece today, discussing Santorum's victory speech in Steubenville, Ohio on Super Tuesday.
On this issue, Santorum cannot be accused of hypocrisy. His Super Tuesday victory speech, delivered in Steubenville, Ohio, did not make use of a teleprompter — or any other form of rhetorical discipline. It was a 20-minute ramble of lame jokes, patriotic platitudes and half-developed campaign themes. On the evidence of these remarks, Santorum’s guiding philosophy is “free enterprise” and “free people” held together by free association. He vaguely honored Ronald Reagan for saying inspiring words, without bothering to contribute any of his own. He praised the “greatest generation” without crafting a single phrase that captured their accomplishments.
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Santorum’s case for extemporaneousness depends on a questionable premise. He assumes that authenticity is identical to spontaneity. By this standard, the most authentic political communication would come after rousing a candidate from bed in the middle of the night, turning him around three times and asking him to share the deepest convictions of his heart. This elevation of instinct and impulse is deeply unconservative — akin to arguing that the only authentic love is free love. Conservatives generally assert that discipline and preparation reveal authentic commitments, not discredit them.
It is actually a form of pride — in a politician or anyone else — to believe that every thought produced by the firing of one’s neurons is immediately fit for public consumption. The craft of rhetoric involves the humility of repeated revision. The careful appeal to an audience is a form of courtesy — a respect not shown to the unfortunate people of Steubenville.
But a prospective president should care about rhetoric for deeper reasons: Because language and leadership are inseparable. Because history is not shaped or moved by mediocre words.