Analyzing Bill Clinton’s teleprompter-free speech in history

Former President Bill Clinton lit up Twitter, Facebook, and websites last night as people grew deeply concerned—about the fate of his teleprompter.

The teleprompter has been a part of presidential campaigns since the 1950s and every president since Dwight Eisenhower, with the exception of Richard Nixon, has used one.

In recent years, Republicans have criticized Barack Obama as the “teleprompter president,” a claim they would never likely use against Bill Clinton.

Last night, the Democrats passed out copies of Clinton’s nomination speech just before he took the stage. Some veteran TV journalists chuckled at the prospect of the speech going its allotted 30 minutes.

Link: The Annotated Bill Clinton Convention Speech

It actually went closer to 48 minutes as Clinton tossed in zingers and pleaded to the audience using old-school stump-speech tactics.

The teleprompter operator is tasked with “rolling prompter” and making sure the words in front of the speaker (usually on a pair of computer monitors) keep pace with the speech. It was probably a long night for that prompter operator in North Carolina.

Twitter users were impressed that Clinton seemed to be ad libbing much of his speech, or as younger Twitter user said, he was “freestyling.”

Whether Clinton planned to toss in ad libs or just “freestyled” is probably just between Clinton and his teleprompter operator, but an analysis of his prepared remarks and his actual speech shows Clinton picked his shots strategically.

Here are five shots that Clinton lobbed in “off speech” with the ad libs underlined:

Now, there’s something I’ve noticed lately. You probably have too. And it’s this. Maybe just because I grew up in a different time, but though I often disagree with Republicans, I actually never learned to hate them the way the far right that now controls their party seems to hate our president and a lot of other Democrats.

People have predicted our demise ever since George Washington was criticized for being a mediocre surveyor with a bad set of wooden false teeth. And so far, every single person that’s bet against America has lost money because we always come back. We come through every fire a little stronger and a little better.

They beat a Republican congressman with almost a hundred percent voting record on every conservative score, because he said he realized he did not have to hate the president to disagree with him. Boy, that was a nonstarter, and they threw him out.

And this is important, they convinced me they were honorable people who believed what they said and they’re going to keep every commitment they’ve made. We just got to make sure the American people know what those commitments are

Folks, whether the American people believe what I just said or not may be the whole election. I just want you to know that I believe it. With all my heart, I believe it.

Clinton’s off-script remarks were peppered with pleas like “this is personal to me” and “ a lot of people believe this stuff.”

Whether Clinton actually planned his ab libs or not isn’t important, but the former president has a record of speaking without a prompter.

Give us your own six-word stump speech!

In fact, Clinton was cited when Hub Schlafly, the device’s inventor, died in 2011 for his memorable 1994 State of the Union speech, which was literally “memorable” since Clinton did it all from memory after the wrong speech was put in the device.

Schlafly’s obit in the Washington Post tells how another president, Herbert Hoover, made the teleprompter a household name.

Hoover was the first politician to use a prompter on TV at a national convention in 1952. When the device stalled, as it often did in the 1950s, Hoover asked for it to be restarted.

Reporters picked up on his dilemma and the rest became history.

“We must have gotten 10,000 newspaper clippings from around the world about Hoover using the prompter,” Schlafly is recounted as saying in the Post obit. “That got us into the public-speaking business.”

In reality, Clinton’s speech was more similar to a stump speech. Stump speeches started in the 1830s as political parties formed, and presidential candidates jumped into the stump-speech act about 100 years ago.

One of the early masters of the stump speech was Theodore Roosevelt. In a famous incident, the former president was shot in the chest on the way to a stump speech in Milwaukee in October 1912.

A stenographer recorded his stump speech, and it recounts why Roosevelt had to go off-speech that day.

“I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot; but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose. But fortunately I had my manuscript, so you see I was going to make a long speech, and there is a bullet–there is where the bullet went through–and it probably saved me from it going into my heart. The bullet is in me now, so that I cannot make a very long speech, but I will try my best,” he said.

Roosevelt went on to complete most of his 90-minute speech without his notes and then went to a hospital for treatment.

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