At yesterday’s State of the Union address, President Barack Obama referred to the dramatic improvements in economic productivity and employment that had occurred on his watch, but did not seal the point by displaying graphs or charts documenting and dramatizing his assertions.
He tried to stir the nation to address the gaping inequality of wealth in our society. But, again, he did not use any of the digital tools that school children now routinely employ, when presenting assigned reports to their classes, to render his arguments vivid and convincing.
Likewise, Obama spoke of a pressing need to address climate change, but failed to display any of the evidence that he might have enlisted to establish the existence of such a need: charts or graphs of rising average temperature readings over the past century; video of melting glaciers or meteorologic events believed to be attributable to such change; animations displaying our retreating shorelines in recent years. By contrast, think of the nearly magical techniques Al Gore–outside the political context–used to make these points nearly a decade ago in the movie An Inconvenient Truth (2006).
Would presidential addresses lose dignity if such techniques were employed? Someone must think so. Maybe it goes back to H. Ross Perot’s third-party candidacy in 1992. In those pre-Powerpoint years, the businessman awkwardly held up his own charts—the kind that might have been placed on an easel in his boardroom—and tried to show the nation why it should have been alarmed by the skyrocketing federal debt, the plummeting purchasing power of the dollar, stagnating wages, and, in fact, the growing inequality of income.
Maybe it was Perot’s big ears, short stature, and funny voice. Maybe it was the incongruity of a CEO crudely wading into politics, or the fact that genuinely eccentric features of Perot’s personality eventually cast a pall over his campaign. But people do still talk very dismissively about “Perot and his charts.”
On the other hand, Perot got 19% of the vote in 1992—the best third-party showing since Theodore Roosevelt in 1912. At one point—till his eccentricities came to the fore—he was drawing 39% in polls.
A quarter century ago, when TV monitors, laser-disk technologies, animations, and other digital advancements first began creeping into courtrooms, some lawyers—mainly on the defense side—declined to stoop to using such populist bells and whistles. I wrote about the phenomenon then—in May 1990!—in a comically dated piece for The American Lawyer entitled, “Now Showing In A Courtroom Near You.” At a trial before U.S. District Judge Stanley Sporkin in Washington, D.C., the plaintiffs lawyer had martialed these electronic technologies to dazzling effect. When the defense lawyer stood up for his summation, he told Sporkin, with John Houseman-like pride, that he was going to present his case “the old-fashioned way, with paper and voice.”
Sporkin cut him off. “Don’t knock the new way,” he said. “I am telling you it is sensational. I must tell you I think that’s going to be the way of the future.”
Twenty-five years later, federal courtrooms have more HD-TV monitors than water pitchers—one on the judge’s bench, several for the clerks, several for each counsel table, and, near the bar, an enormous one facing the gallery.
Presidents, on the other hand—and obviously it’s not just Obama—still shun audiovisual aids. The day will come, though, when one of them breaks the boycott. Then the corner will have been forever turned, and no one will ever look back.
Remember when–in 1997–the New York Times belatedly first put a color photo on the front page? At first, only déclassé publications like USA Today stooped to stunts like that. Then one day the Times finally gave it a try. It assured readers that its practice would be thoughtful and sparing, and that it would continue using black-and-white.
Then it printed a few fabulous color photos. The argument was over.
Disdain can be a mask concealing other emotions. Like laziness. (“I don’t have time to learn these new-fangled technologies.”) Or ignorance. (“How do you actually do it?”) Or fear. (“Will I make a fool of myself? Will people think I lack dignity?”)
Presidents should be trying to persuade people—trying to move them to action. If opponents are taking the position that climate change is still unproven, Obama needs to use all the technological means available to take his case directly to the people. If a President wants to the nation to act in the face of a humanitarian crisis, he needs to show them video of the crisis. If he wants support for military action against terrorists, he should show video of their crimes.
Some people criticize Obama for being too professorial. But actually, he’s the only professor in the country who still won’t use digital technologies to get his points across.
Watch more of Obama’s State of the Union from Fortune’s video team: