The search for authenticity
After Clinton, candidates want to be real. Are they?
By Matthew Cooper
November 1, 1999
Web posted at: 12:10 p.m. EST (1710 GMT)
We knew there would be a "yuck!" reaction to Bill Clinton this
election season. We just didn't know exactly what it would be.
After all, as the cliche goes, every election is a reaction to
the previous President--and that goes double when the guy has
problems defining the word is. The conventional wisdom last year
was that America would react to Clinton by choosing a leader who
put rectitude above all else. But that hasn't happened. The Man
to Beat, George W., has made clear that he was once "young and
irresponsible." For a while, it seemed that the reaction to
Clinton might be ideological. Nope. Lots of candidates--Gore,
Bush--are hugging the middle, Clinton-style.
So how is America, or at least those who have begun to follow the
race, responding to Clinton's dissembling? The answer is a search
for authenticity. We want our pols real, genuine. Phony is out.
Look at Lamar Alexander. This year, unlike in '96, he skipped the
plaid shirts and the exclamation mark, but the artifice still
rankled. He's gone, as is Elizabeth Dole with her syrupy smile.
G.O.P. consultant Frank Luntz says he's never seen such low
tolerance for packaging.
Of course, being spontaneous requires careful preparation. When
Bush tells reporters that there is still time to "screw it up,"
is it a rare moment of self-doubt or mere spin to lower
expectations? I suspect the latter. John McCain's
I-tell-it-like-it-is demeanor is compelling, but Senate
colleagues think he's hiding his red-faced temper. Gore has
explicitly said he's "throwing away" his prepared text. To
broadcast his soul searching, he has released his Vietnam
letters. His campaign has even leaked Gore's handwritten text of
an ad to show he's not consultant driven. For his part, Bill
Bradley wants to radiate authenticity. Each time he takes to the
podium, reading glasses perched halfway down his nose, he's
tacitly shouting, "I'm not slick!" Bradley, who endlessly
practiced jump shots, seems as studied as ever.
And so the line between real and authentic gets harder to
discern. With Gore, it varies from moment to moment. When he
chirps about devoting his life to "change that works for working
families," he is just spewing a contrived phrase. But for what
it's worth, I think I saw a bit of the real Al Gore a few years
ago when I interviewed him about the environment. The session was
supposed to last 15 minutes. It went on for 90 as Gore talked
about ozone depletion, at times pulling out charts like a college
professor. His passion seemed pretty real, to me at least. At
some point in this campaign, though, he decided not to sound
wonky--which is probably a mistake if you are, in fact, a wonk.
Instead of posing, Gore might follow Gray Davis. As California's
Lieutenant Governor, Davis was in a similar bind--second banana,
dull, familiar. Instead of feigning charisma, Davis ran for
Governor last year as, well, dull and experienced. He won.
Of course, authenticity, even if you stumble upon it, may be
overrated. The late literary critic Lionel Trilling noted that
authenticity was a relatively modern idea. Until the Romantic
era, you were not supposed to reveal your true self to the world.
Now, that's all we're supposed to do. But think of our fearless
World War II leaders. What if F.D.R. had let it all hang out
about his physical pain, or Winston Churchill had talked through
his depression? Keeping things to yourself isn't the worst thing
for a candidate, a leader--or the rest of us.
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Cover Date: November 1, 1999