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Watching the Watchdog: Obama's Been Playing the Part Too Long

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Tim Knight writes the regular media column Watching the Watchdog for HuffPost Canada.

The great American actor Morgan Freeman once told me a story about the great English actor Laurence Olivier.

Seems Olivier is starring in Hamlet and after the curtain falls one night is heading out for a couple of those libations that maketh glad the heart of man when he's stopped by a spear-carrier who asks for his autograph.

Olivier obliges, asks politely "and what do you do?"

"I'm an actor, sir."

"Oh dear," says Oliver. "Don't let anyone catch you at it."

Well, this week we caught U.S. president Barack Obama at it.

He acted.

You could see him acting.

You could see him acting badly.

This wasn't the same great communicator who six years ago rallied millions of people to his cause with speeches so passionate, so honest, so obviously heart-felt, that he won the presidency of all those United States on his first try.

Instead, this week, in his fifth State of the Union address, Obama showed every sign of no longer believing in his words. He was Hamlet, unable to make up his mind, over-trained and over-rehearsed. Too self-aware to persuade.

He was Hamlet who didn't understand his character, couldn't find his motivation, didn't trust his script.

If you watched carefully, you could see him slavishly obey his teleprompter and you could predict exactly what he would do next. A couple of seconds to the screen on his left, a couple of seconds to the screen on his right. Then back to the left screen again. He almost never worked the camera in front of him -- the camera where his audience was.

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You could watch him remember where he was supposed to pause. And you could predict the length of those pauses. You could tell where underlined parts of his script told him to go louder, faster. When to shrug. When to look grave. When to smile.

On this evening, the man lauded as one of the great orators of our time because he had the ability to make the written words disappear and sound as if he was genuinely thinking out loud, simply read this most important speech straight from the teleprompter.

He saw almost no scenes, thought almost no thoughts, felt and showed (until he got to the part about gun control) almost no emotions.

He proved, as has been proved by so many others so many times before, that reading aloud without taking part in the emotional meaning of the words, is the least effective and efficient way of passing on information, one to the other, humans have ever invented.

Some of my notes in order of watching:

  • His pauses, which once appeared so natural and meaningful, now seem studied and rehearsed.
  • He's just speechifying. He no longer believes in what he's saying.
  • His base volume is too loud. It's a big room, but microphones are very good these days. He'd be a lot more effective if he talked to these politicians in his natural voice, rather than raising his voice at them, which is never a good idea in politics anyway.
  • Keeping that same forced volume going for almost the full hour means there's little contrast, little difference between the points he's making.
  • His cadence is too studied, too predictable. Different scenes in this, his play, have different emotional meaning. Yet they all sound pretty much the same.
  • If everything in his speech is more or less equally important, then nothing is particularly important.
  • He's drunk the Kool-aid of politics, of all those communications consultants and trainers and advisers. And the truth's no longer in him. How sad.

This Obama speech was so flat, so monotonous, so uninteresting, that instead of concentrating on the man and his message, I found myself studying the theatre playing around him.

Consider the powerful political warlords sitting right behind the president.

On his left side, Democrat and Vice President Joe Biden, wearing a strangely mauveish tie, smiling the smile of a man who knows he can do a far better job than the uppity boy-president babbling away in front of him.

On his right side, the speaker of the House, Republican John Boehner, in an oddly pink tie, smiling an occasional grim smile, slit eyes like a cobra yearning to sink his fangs into the back of Obama's neck.

Then there was the audience. Politicians from both parties watching their leaders so they'd know when to applaud and when not to applaud. When to stand and when not to stand. Up and down. Up and down. Like kindergarten kids. Or trained seals.

This was no Periclean exercise in the people's democracy. Instead, when it should have been part of the history of our times, it was mostly meaningless, third-rate political theatre.

However, if Obama was an ineffective, over-trained, over-rehearsed third-rate actor while delivering his State of the Union address, he displayed all the splendour of Olivier's Hamlet when compared to the travesty that followed.

Florida Senator Marco Rubio had been carefully chosen by the Republican Party bigwigs to offer the party's answer to Obama. (Rubio's supposed to be a rising star in the party and is spoken of as a possible presidential candidate.)

The Republicans must be insane.

Rubio, obviously terrified by the occasion, was hypnotized by the teleprompter words unrolling there in front of his beady eyes. He sweated, stumbled, did his now-famous water bottle reach, delivered the worst on-camera performance I've seen in years.

It was like watching the Titanic slide into the Atlantic Ocean without even the strains of "Abide With Me" to deliver some meaning, however fatuous.

I've trained on-camera performers in a dozen countries for lo, these many years. It pains me to admit this, but I don't think even I could turn this man into a public speaker.

Maybe next time Rubio should try drugs and alcohol before facing the camera.

I give late night host David Letterman the last word from his top 10 list of Things Going Through Marco Rubio's Mind at This Moment:

# 9. "Doctors say you should drink eight glasses of water every speech."

# 4. "I'm sure they'll edit this part out."

# 1. "By 2016, won't American want a stooge back in the white House?"