Friday, May 25, 2007

"Authenticity" Is A Phony Issue

Updated below

Over at TNR's Open University blog, historian Michael Kazin is wondering whether it is possible for a presidential candidate to be "authentic":
If recent media reports are credible, several of the leading candidates for president are conniving, unpleasant frauds. John Edwards feels uncomfortable around gay people and made millions working for a hedge fund while supposedly dedicating himself to fighting poverty; Hillary Clinton didn't bother reading the intelligence report on Iraq before voting to authorize the war and has stuck to her marriage only because it might help her get elected; and Mitt Romney reverses his positions on key social issues and explains it as a maturing process. I assume we'll hear analogous tales about the other contenders before the year is out.

Such news--as predictable as the rising cost of campaigning--raises a troubling question: Is it possible for a serious candidate for the White House to be an authentic personality? Or does the pervasive, unending scrutiny of contemporary politics insure that there will always be a large gap between public image and private reality? . . .

To be honest, I really can't make up my mind.
Elsewhere in the post, Kazin remarks that his befuddlement might strike some people as "naive," and that's just about my position. But not for the reason Kazin assumes--that "Of course, all politicians are phonies." Actually I consider Kazin naive because he is in a tizzy over a question that is more or less meaningless.

Running for president has become an increasingly bizarre activity almost totally divorced from normal human behavior. It's not just the fish bowl of continual publicity and the ever-present entourage of Secret Service agents, advisors, pollsters, PR handlers, well-wishers, and undercover agents employed by rival candidates. It's also the knowledge that everything you say and do is likely to be recorded, either in writing or on audio or video tape, to be chopped up into sound bites, re-contextualized, and used against you by people who profit enormously from making you appear to be craven, idiotic, or depraved.

Under these circumstances, being "authentic" must surely mean--if it means anything at all--artfully constructing a public persona that accurately captures something "real" about one's private, off-stage personality. It is like being an opera singer, laboring on stage under the hot lights, weighed down by many pounds of costume and layers of makeup, and having to express oneself not in speech but in singing that somehow both reaches the uppermost seats in the balcony and also simulates spontaneous human emotion. Except that the presidential candidate must also play the role of the composer, not only performing the aria convincingly but also writing his or her own score (albeit with the help of speechwriters, advisors, and so on).

In such a world, how "authentic" a candidate appears "on the stump" (quaint metaphor that!) has almost nothing to do with the qualities of "genuineness" or "honesty" or "authenticity" as we recognize them in ordinary life. It's a matter of how talented they are at devising and then projecting a consistent and convincing image. This is an important talent for a contemporary politician, but it doesn't carry the moral freight Kazin wants to give it.

We need to examine the behavior of candidates, both on-stage and off, not in search of some mystical quality of "authenticity" but to figure out what kind of presidents they would make. In advising the hedge fund, did John Edwards support behavior that arguably exploited the poor or skirted the line of illegality? If Hillary in fact didn't bother to read the pre-war intelligence on Iraq, is she either too lazy or too gullible to be a good president? Is Romney shifting from foolish policy positions toward wiser ones, or the reverse--and whose advice is he following in making these shifts?

The answers to questions like these won't produce a score on some kind of "authenticity scale." But they will help us judge how the candidates might behave in the Oval Office. That's the question that matters.


Over at Media Matters, a fine article about Carl Bernstein's new Hillary bio that makes much the same point as my post. Key graf:
The problem with the Bernstein-style focus on personal biography and "authenticity" is not that "authenticity" is a bad thing, of course. The problem is that it's a catch-all for whether or not journalists like the candidates; it's that it is a completely subjective attribute, being measured by a group of people who have been spectacularly wrong in assessing it in recent years. Meanwhile, if reporters would just fact-check the verifiable claims candidates make -- such as Bush's claim about his tax cuts -- we'd have a far better understanding of which candidate is truthful than we do after reading endless columns about who wears brown pants and what that tells us about their relationship with their father.
It's all worth reading.

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