ad info
 election 2000
 guide: gov.,sen.,rep.

 Headline News brief
 news quiz
 daily almanac

 video archive
 multimedia showcase
 more services

Subscribe to one of our news e-mail lists.
Enter your address:
Get a free e-mail account

 message boards

CNN Websites
 En Español
 Em Português


Networks image
 more networks

 ad info


 TIME CNN/AllPolitics CNN/AllPolitics with Congressional Quarterly

The search for authenticity

After Clinton, candidates want to be real. Are they?

By Matthew Cooper

TIME magazine

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.


Cover Date: November 1, 1999

© 1999 Cable News Network, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Terms under which this service is provided to you.
Read our privacy guidelines.
Who we are.