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Obama, late for his own Middle East speech, keeps viewers and anxious TV types waiting, globally

May 19, 2011 |  6:01 pm

The world awaits president obama's tardy middle east speech 5-19-11

Whether on the campaign trail or in the White House, President Barack Obama has not been known for his punctuality.

Today's "major speech" on Middle East and North Africa foreign policy was majorly late, more than a half-hour so. Which may not seem long in the flow of history.  But try telling that to TV hosts and viewers around the world waiting for the big guy to step to his microphone. (Photos of the international TV play are right here.)

The address, held in the sumptuous Benjamin Franklin Room at the State Department in Washington, was originally announced for 11:40 a.m., but it was 12:09 p.m. before Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton stepped to the podium, and five more minutes after that before the president appeared. Obama was also nearly an hour late for the announced time of what became his Osama bin Laden is dead speech May 1.

Delays like this cause one of the most feared things in live broadcasting -- dead air. Preventing ...

... an echoing silence tests the improvisational skills of correspondents, who must keep the chatter going until somebody shouts into their ear that it's time to shut up.

Here's a diary of how two news cable-nets handled the obligatory tap-dance:

It was a bit easier for Fox News, since the speech began and ended within its daily "Happening Now" block, with anchors Jenna Lee and Jon Scott in New York.

Under the "Fox News Alert" banner, Lee kept an eye on the pool camera while talking to Aaron Miller, a Woodrow Wilson Center public policy scholar (did anyone tell FNC's Glenn Beck? Of Wilson, he always says, "I hate that guy!") and an advisor to six secretaries of State.

Scott then chimed in with former Ambassador to Egypt Frank Wisner, reportedly a recent visitor to his old post on behalf of the Obama administration.

Lee called the two-minute warning for the president's scheduled arrival, but when the commander in chief didn't materialize, FNC went to commercial.

After that, Lee took time to bring in correspondent Harris Faulker, who delivered breaking news about an FBI investigation that may link Unabomber Ted Kaczynski to the 1982 Tylenol poisonings in the Chicago area.

At 11:47 a.m., Scott announced, "any moment now, the president will step in front of those Jenna_Lee_Aaron_Miller_Fox_News_Obama_Speech flags to make a major policy address regarding the Middle East."

Alas, that still didn't happen. So Scott brought in White House correspondent Mike Emanuel.

When that was done, he threw back to Lee.

She wondered aloud whether some of this focus on the Middle East might better be directed at China -- not sure who's going to be beating that drum now that Donald Trump has abandoned his presidential ambitions -- and what the "Obama doctrine" was.

She was discussing that with Miller until the ad break.

At 11:56 a.m., Scott again announced, "We are waiting to hear from the president." But noon approached, with more from Emanuel and Wisner.

At last, the real two-minute warning came at 12:07 p.m., and Lee said, "You just heard an announcement over the loudspeaker there. We're getting ready for the president; he's a little late. We expected him around 11:40 a.m., but, uh, things happen."

Then, since still no one was yet at the podium, Lee squeezed in a quick remote from correspondent Reena Ninan on the ground in Benghazi, Libya. Ninan whipped out a quick summary of the day's events, then threw it back to Lee, just in time for Clinton.

Over at MSNBC, it was all NBC News correspondents -- although NBC itself didn't break into regular daytime programming to cover the speech live.

Unlike the extracurricular reports at FNC, the conversation stuck to the subject of the upcoming address.

Daytime MSNBC anchor Thomas Roberts signed off at 11:25 a.m. After an ad break, at 11:30 a.m, under the "Developing Now" banner, NBC News Chief Foreign Affairs Correspondent Andrea Mitchell, in Washington, came on.

She then brought in NBC News Political Director and White House Correspondent Chuck Todd, and finally, NBC News Chief Foreign Correspondent Richard Engel (appropriately enough, on a remote from Cairo).

Mitchell also had experts Michael Singh, managing director for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a former senior director for the National Security Council, and former State Department spokesman James Rubin, now co-executive editor of Bloomberg View.Andrea_Mitchell_NBC_News_MSNBC

When the moment for the speech arrived, Mitchell -- perhaps having heard something in her ear -- threw to a commercial break, then rolled on after coming back.

At 11:58 a.m., she said, "We are minutes away."

Then Todd sagely said, "One thing I can tell you, the president has finally left the White House. The motorcade is rolling.  We know it's not very long to get to Foggy Bottom, so we know we are minutes away, not hours away, when it comes to the president finally arriving there."

With two uses of "finally" in that passage, it seems Todd was keeping his eye on the clock.

At 12:08 p.m., having said almost everything one could say before hearing the speech, Mitchell commented on how lovely the Benjamin Franklin Room was, and how different it was from other rooms at the State Department, which are "Washington 1950s and '60s construction."

She also informed viewers that it is "elaborately decorated with donated antique furnishings."

Then Clinton arrived, and everyone could get a drink of water and sit back for a few minutes -- actually, about 50 minutes, between the secretary of State and the president.


What they're saying about Obama's speech

Full text of President Obama's speech

-- Kate O'Hare

Media critic Kate O’Hare is a regular Ticket contributor. She also blogs about TV at Hot Cuppa TV and is a frequent contributor at entertainment-news site Zap2it. Also follow O'Hare on Twitter @KateOH

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Photos: Screenshots by Kate O'Hare