Hoover and the Teleprompter

1952-17A stereotype frequently attributed to Herbert Hoover is that he was cold and aloof. He did not have an official White House photographer (that would come with his successor, Franklin D. Roosevelt) and refused to have his family and private life as fair game for media coverage. Unlike later Presidents that used the media to portray warm images of them as husbands, fathers, and caring individuals for the American public, Hoover believed that his performance in office was more important than crafting a public image largely based on carefully staged events with plenty of photo opportunities.

One admiring fan was disturbed by the stilted appearance of President Hoover in newsreels. Shelly O’Neal from Brooklyn, New York sent the following suggestions to Hoover’s personal secretary, Lawrence Richey, on May 6, 1931:

“Our president has a handsome face; in its outlines of strength, kindliness and sincerity but takes a very unflattering talking picture. This is due I feel to the necessity of having to take his eyes from his audience to refer to his text which I appreciate is essential in making talking pictures.
“I am taking the liberty of offering the following suggestion in connection with making of studio talking pictures which I believe he can use to telling effect in his coming campaign.
The suggestion will make possible the elimination of the text from the picture, will enable him to look directly at or shift his gaze from left to right or vice versa and thereby give a more definite impression to the audience that he is talking to them and not reading his speech. It will also eliminate those side views which do not do him justice.
“The following rough sketch I hope explains the idea:
1) Mr. Hoover with apologies for the art
2) Movie camera
3) A rolling screen 10 ft. wide with his text printed in large easily readable letters.
“This screen can be operated by an adjustable speed motor that can be adjusted to a suitable speed for operating screen at desired readable speed.
“Screen can also be mounted on flanged wheels that operate on a track that describes a semicircle. Screen can be made to move back and to as per following sketch: [sketch]
“I hope the idea or something to accomplish the items listed can be used; and also that we will have our capable president in the White House for another term.

Mr. O’Neal was suggesting a crude prototype of what would become the mechanical teleprompter, perfected by Hubert Schlafly in 1950. Though O’Neal’s proposal was not pursued in 1931, Hoover used a Schlafly teleprompter at the 1952 Chicago Republican National Convention.

The 1952 Republican National Convention was the first political convention broadcast live by television. In addition to being the first live telecast, the GOP convention was the debut event for the new device still used by politicians today, the “TelePrompTer”. As the keynote speaker for the convention, former president Hebert Hoover was the first person to use the TelePrompTer, however, without much success.

In a 1967 interview, William Coberly, Jr., the brother of Herbert Hoover’s daughter-in-law, recounted that the TelePrompTer’s operator slowed down in the middle of the speech.  This in turn forced Hoover to speak even slower.  Out of frustration, Hoover muttered, “This damned thing, I could do better without it.”  At that point, the operator picked up the tempo and Hoover completed his speech to a rousing ovation.  After the convention, Irving B. Kahn, president of the TelePrompTer company, received the following message from H.V. Kaltenborn, “Had Herbert Hoover had a TelePrompTer twenty years ago, he would have been elected the second time.”

Later presidents have become much more proficient in its use, making the teleprompter an indispensable presidential media tool used today.

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