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

Posted: 02/15/2013 5:54 pm

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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  • Barack Obama

    President Barack Obama is greeted before his State of the Union address during a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday Feb. 12, 2013. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, Pool)

  • President Barack Obama, flanked by Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, gives his State of the Union address during a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday Feb. 12, 2013. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, Pool)

  • Secretary of State John Kerry greets President Barack Obama before the president's State of the Union address during a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday Feb. 12, 2013. Sen.Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. is at right, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano is at center. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, Pool)

  • President Barack Obama gestures toward Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio before giving his State of the Union address during a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday Feb. 12, 2013. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, Pool)

  • President Barack Obama waves before giving his State of the Union address during a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday Feb. 12, 2013. Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio stand behind the president. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, Pool)

  • President Barack Obama is greeted before giving his State of the Union address during a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday Feb. 12, 2013. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, Pool)

  • Barack Obama

    President Barack Obama gestures as he gives his State of the Union address during a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday Feb. 12, 2013. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, Pool)

  • Barack Obama, Joe Biden, John Boehner

    President Barack Obama, flanked by Vice President John Biden and House Speaker John Boehner smiles as he gives his State of the Union address during a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday Feb. 12, 2013. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, Pool)

  • President Barack Obama is applauded as he gives his State of the Union address during a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday Feb. 12, 2013. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

  • Reporters listen and work as President Barack Obama gives his State of the Union address during a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday Feb. 12, 2013. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

  • President Barack Obama gestures as he gives his State of the Union address during a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday Feb. 12, 2013. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

  • Barack Obama, Joe Biden, John Boehner

    Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio applaud President Barack Obama as he gives his State of the Union address during a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday Feb. 12, 2013. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, Pool)

  • President Barack Obama gives his State of the Union address during a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday Feb. 12, 2013. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

  • First lady Michelle Obama, front row, center, and other, listen as President Barack Obama gives his State of the Union address during a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday Feb. 12, 2013. Front row, from left are, Sgt. Sheena Adams, Nathanial Pendleton, Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton, Mrs. Obama, Menchu Sanchez, Jill Biden, Kaitlin Roif and Alan Aleman.Second row, from from left are, Deb Carey, Apple CEO Tim Cook, Amanda McMillan, Lt. Brian Murphy, Marie Lopez Rogers and Bradley Henning. Third row, third from left are,Tracey Hepner, Haile Thomas, Lee Maxwell, Sgt. Carlos Evand and White House seniot adviser Valerie Jarrett, (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

  • House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of Calif., left, and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Va. listen as President Barack Obama gives his State of the Union address during a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday Feb. 12, 2013. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

  • Former Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and her husband Mark Kelly watch President Barack Obama's State of the Union address during a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday Feb. 12, 2013. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

  • President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio applaud during the president's State of the Union address during a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday Feb. 12, 2013. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, Pool)

  • Carolyn Murray wipes her eye as she holds a photo of her son Justin during President Barack Obama' State of the Union address during a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday Feb. 12, 2013. Murray was shot and killed in Evanston, Ill. Nov. 29, 2012. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

  • President Barack Obama gives his State of the Union address during a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday Feb. 12, 2013. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, Pool)

  • Barack Obama, Joe Biden, John Boehner

    President Barack Obama, flanked by Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, gestures as he gives his State of the Union address during a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday Feb. 12, 2013. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, Pool)

  • President Barack Obama greets outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta after the president gave his State of the Union address during a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday Feb. 12, 2013. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

  • President Barack Obama gives his State of the Union address during a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday Feb. 12, 2013. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

  • President Barack Obama is greeted after giving his State of the Union address during a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday Feb. 12, 2013. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

  • President Barack Obama waves and House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio applauds after the president gave his State of the Union address during a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday Feb. 12, 2013. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, Pool)

  • President Barack Obama shakes hands as he leaves after giving his State of the Union address during a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday Feb. 12, 2013. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, Pool)

  • Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt. greets President Barack Obama after the president gave his State of the Union address during a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday Feb. 12, 2013. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, Pool)

  • President Barack Obama is greeted after giving his State of the Union address during a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday Feb. 12, 2013. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

  • President Barack Obama shakes hands with Vice President Joe Biden after the president gave his State of the Union address during a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday Feb. 12, 2013. House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio is at left. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

  • First lady Michelle Obama stands with Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton before President Barack Obama's State of the Union address during a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday Feb. 12, 2013. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

  • First lady Michelle Obama is applauded before President Barack Obama's State of the Union address during a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday Feb. 12, 2013. Front row, from left are, Nathaniel Pendleton, Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton, Mrs. Obama, Menchu Sanchez and Jill Biden. Second row, from left are, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, Deb Carey, Apple CEO Tim Cook, Amanda McMillan, Lt. Brian Murphy and Marie Lopez Rogers. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

  • House Budget Committee Chairman Rep.Paul Ryan, R-Wis. applauds during President Barack Obama's State of the Union address during a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday Feb. 12, 2013. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

  • House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of Calif. applauds during President Barack Obama's State of the Union address during a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday Feb. 12, 2013. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

  • Carolyn Murray holds a photo of her slain son Justin during President Barack Obama' State of the Union address during a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday Feb. 12, 2013. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

  • President Barack Obama leaves after giving his State of the Union address during a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday Feb. 12, 2013. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

  • President Barack Obama is greeted by Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., second from left, Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala., and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., right, before giving his State of the Union address during a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday Feb. 12, 2013. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, Pool)

  • Desiline Victor, 102, of Miami is applauded by White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, right, and others, during President Barack Obama's State of the Union address during a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday Feb. 12, 2013. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

  • US-POLITICS-OBAMA-STATE OF THE UNION

    (Front row) Attorney General Eric Holder, outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Secretary of State John Kerry, (second row) EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano and Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki applaud as US President Barack Obama delivers his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress on February 12, 2013 at the US Capitol in Washington, DC. AFP PHOTO/Mandel NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

  • US-POLITICS-OBAMA-STATE OF THE UNION

    Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey points out a person in the audience to outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta as Chief of Army Staff Raymond Odierno (R) looks on before the State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress by US President Barack Obama on February 12, 2013 at the US Capitol in Washington, DC. AFP PHOTO/Mandel NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Peter Hudson co-founder and CEO iTriage, Evergreen, Colo., far right, listens during President Barack Obama's State of the Union address during a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday Feb. 12, 2013. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

  • US-POLITICS-STATE OF THE UNION-OBAMA

    US President Barack Obama rests his hand next to a copy of his speech as he delivers his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress on February 12, 2013 at the US Capitol in Washington, DC. AFP PHOTO/Mandel NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

  • US-POLITICS-OBAMA-STATE OF THE UNION

    US President Barack Obama shakes hands with Vice President Joe Biden as House Speaker John Boehner applauds after Obama delivered his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress on February 12, 2013 at the US Capitol in Washington, DC. AFP PHOTO/Mandel NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

  • US-POLITICS-OBAMA-STATE OF THE UNION

    US President Barack Obama shakes hands with House Speaker John Boehner after delivering his State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress on February 12, 2013 at the US Capitol in Washington, DC. AFP PHOTO/Mandel NGAN (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

  • Secretary of State John Kerry applauds as President Barack Obama gives his State of the Union address during a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday Feb. 12, 2013. Vice President Joe Biden is at left, House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio is second from right. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, Pool)

  • First lady Michelle Obama is applauded before President Barack Obama's State of the Union address during a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday Feb. 12, 2013. Front row from left are Sgt. Sheena Adams, Nathaniel Pendelton, Cleopatra Cowley-Pendelton, Obama, Menchu Sanchez and Jill Biden. Second row from left are Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, Deb Carey, Tim Cook, Amanda McMillan, Lt. Brian Murphy, Marie Lopez Rogers, and Bradley Henning. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

  • First lady Michelle Obama is applauded before President Barck Obama's State of the Union address during a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday Feb. 12, 2013. Front row, from left are, Sgt. Sheena Adms, Nathaniel Pendleton, Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton, Mrs, Obama, Menchu de Luna Sanchez and Jill Biden. Second row, third from left are, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, Deb Carey and Apple CEO Tim Cook Amanda McMillian, Lt. Brian Murphy, (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

  • House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy of Calif. left, and House Majority Leader Eric Cantor listen during President Barack Obama's State of the Union address during a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday Feb. 12, 2013. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

  • From left, Attorney General Eric Holder, outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Secretary of State John Kerry applaud during President Barack Obama's State of the Union address during a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday Feb. 12, 2013. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

  • President Barack Obama gestures while giving his State of the Union address during a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday Feb. 12, 2013. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

  • Barack Obama

    Vice President Joe Biden applauds as President Barack Obama gives his State of the Union address during a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday Feb. 12, 2013. House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio sits at right. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, Pool)

  • Secretary of State John Kerry, right, greets Sen.Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., center, and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz, before President Barack Obama's State of the Union address during a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday Feb. 12, 2013. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

  • Barack Obama

    President Barack Obama, flanked by Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio, gestures as he gives his State of the Union address during a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday Feb. 12, 2013. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, Pool)


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?"

 

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