Celebrity plutocrat Donald Trump winged his 2016 presidential announcement Tuesday morning, departing entirely from the four-page, comparatively restrained set of remarks distributed to reporters beforehand. It was a legendary performance that will be remembered long after its frivolous deliverer has dropped out of the race.
But in this as in so much else, Trump just presented an engorged and caricatured version of a very real aspect of the American political circus. In this case it’s the ad-lib, which has been used in recent months by everybody from President Barack Obama to Trump rival Jeb Bush to demonstrate a spontaneous authenticity otherwise lacking in the hyper-controlled, demo-tested political-media nexus.
Quick: name something that happened in Obama’s 2015 State of the Union address. If you recall it at all, you remember that Obama responded to jeers over his “no more campaigns to run” comment with, “That’s because I won both of them.” It became the line of the night, a volcanic burn that beat Republican sniping at its own game. What’s more: aides swear it was ad-libbed.
At Hillary Clinton’s campaign launch last weekend at Roosevelt Island, the most winning line was, “I may not be the youngest candidate in this race, but I will be the youngest woman president in the history of the United States.” Campaign spokesperson Jennifer Palmieri tweeted that the line was ad-libbed after being picked up from a voter in a rope line.
Yesterday, at Bush’s announcement in Florida, Bush shouted down immigration protesters with, “The next president will pass meaningful immigration reform so that that will be solved — NOT by executive order,” a line aides say was not in his speech.
This is, obviously, in no way to say that ad libs are new to the political process, but simply to track their changing value, both to the candidate and to the audience. When social media accounts bearing figures’ names and avatars are controlled by staffers who send out pre-approved messages and political speeches can be written up ahead of time by distributed remarks, the ad lib becomes a crucial signal of spontaneity, proof that a candidate wields firsthand knowledge of the issue and the stakes. This is all the more crucial when the candidate is Clinton, pilloried for cocooning herself behind stage-managed events, or Bush, considered as exciting as a JCPenney sale.
From the other direction, the unexpected line is a perfect internet event at the time when online publications traffic in “How the One Thing You Didn’t Expect Explains Everything About X.” Don’t take my word for it; take Vox’s:
The danger for politicians: as the value of the ad-lib rises, so does the temptation to manufacture it; this scribe, for one, is not 100% either Obama’s or Clinton’s line wasn’t tossed around beforehand. (Nor are all ad libs created equal; see Biden, Joe.)
But as the above examples show, they can animate an otherwise cardboard event. Just one dash of the unexpected can make a five-thousand word speech seem like a mere delivery vehicle for the candidate’s authentic and passionate self. Trump may not be much of a politician, but he clearly understood the value of going off-script.
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