Obama cues the satirists

The late Gerald Ford was certainly one of the most accomplished athletes to serve as president, but by the time Chevy Chase and the crew of “Saturday Night Live” finished with him, the American people saw him as a clumsy, bumbling oaf who “couldn’t walk and chew gum” at the same time.

All it took was a stumble, an errant golf shot, a bump on his head as he exited the presidential helicopter and an ambitious comedian to make him the butt of hundreds of jokes from which he never really recovered. When people saw photos of a younger Ford suited up to play college football, they couldn’t help but ask whether he played with or without his helmet.

Ford’s friends couldn’t understand just how the world got turned upside down on them and one of their boss’s greatest assets could be transformed into such a liability. “Everyone stumbles once in a while,” they told reporters, “but it’s not the stumbles that define a president or a presidency.”

I was reminded of this last week as I read that President Obama’s aides have taken to discounting his recent gaffes, missteps and goofy statements, urging the media, late-night talk show hosts and his critics to ignore them and focus instead on what their boss is trying to accomplish.

The president’s problem stems from his media-generated reputation as a world-class orator who could give a rousing set-piece speech, charm an audience and provide off-the-cuff answers to complicated questions thrown at him by reporters, opponents and voters. There were signs during the campaign itself that this might not be quite accurate, but just how inaccurate it was didn’t become obvious to the general public until after he entered the Oval Office.

It turns out that candidate Obama was at his best not in the hurly-burly give-and-take, but in delivering set pieces he could read from a teleprompter. When separated from his teleprompter and forced out on his own, he was far less sure-footed and a good deal less exciting. This happened more than once during the primaries, but reporters following him didn’t really cover it — and the fact that on his worst day he seemed more articulate than his Republican opponent in the general-election campaign that followed got him through Election Day with his reputation intact.

As president, however, he’s on his own, even though it turns out he’s so addicted to the teleprompter that one is tempted to believe he relies on it in private conversations with his wife and kids. He uses it for large speeches, news conferences and small gatherings. It turns out that he is to past presidents as news readers are to actual reporters. He reportedly even wants a video screen installed on his podium so that aides can provide answers to questions during press conferences. This is in such marked contrast to the image and reputation cultivated during his campaign and accepted by his adoring supporters that he now seems even less articulate than would otherwise be the case.

His staff apparently recognized the dangers of all this right after the election, during Obama’s pre-Inaugural vacation in Hawaii, reportedly trying to wean him from what they obviously realized had become a crutch. The effort failed. Obama simply would not be separated from his pet teleprompter. They failed because the man is hooked, addicted and lost without it. One can imagine the inarticulate symptoms of withdrawal that must have accompanied the effort, because we’ve all seen snatches of a man who could, like Gerald Ford, become an easy laugh generator on late-night television.

No one really doubts Mr. Obama’s intelligence, but inexperience, a few gaffes, one or two truly goofy statements and another performance like last week’s press conference could do more to damage his image than his critics’ attacks on the substance of his domestic and foreign policy initiatives. It may not be fair, but it’s the way the world works.

Ford couldn’t overcome a couple of comedians in a media world still dominated by three aging networks and the traditional news cycle, but Obama lives in a far different world. His gaffes and goofy mistakes take wing via cable and the Internet. This was a world he and his people dominated during the campaign, but which now threatens him in the way that Chevy Chase threatened Ford.

Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, can be reached at Keeneacu@aol.com.