When late CBS newsman Daniel Schorr was asked about his move from radio to television, he reportedly observed, “If you can fake sincerity, you’ve got it made.” It’s in that spirit, and mindful of her declining poll numbers, that Hillary Clinton is getting tweaked again. The effort has been brilliantly satirized by my friend and colleague Rick Horowitz, Milwaukee-based commentator frequently carried in The Huffington Post. But it’s no laughing matter.
What are the standards by which we measure a potential President? In past elections, experience, values, intellect, character, even humor have been among the predominant desired attributes. This election cycle, voters fed up with the political process in general and Washington in particular want “authenticity.” Hence the rise of crusty socialist Bernie Sanders on the left and, on the right, narcissistic, misogynistic, bombastic braggart Donald Trump. Contrast their perceived authenticity with Hillary’s poll driven, surgically parsed, talking point-constricted communicating, and you can understand her slide in the polls, even though she may be the current candidate most obviously capable of being President.
Efforts by Clinton strategists and handlers to portray the softer, more human side of Hillary (allegedly the “real” Hillary) tend to backfire because we understand clearly they are driven, like her 2008 campaign, by focus groups and survey numbers, in the genre of Schorr’s contrived authenticity. The pity is that in person she is charismatic, warm, funny, and obviously very smart, and the twinkle in her eye and hearty laugh are genuinely affecting. But that doesn’t come through when she is in campaign mode, obviously trying to protect herself from missteps yet inevitably making things worse. [Bill Clinton is the more natural politician, and his command of a room is legendary, but his seductiveness in person can’t help but remind us of what a master manipulator he is. No one does it better than Bill Clinton, but he may actually be less authentic than Hillary.]
So what exactly is the authenticity that we’re craving? As Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously wrote in a 1964 case seeking to define obscenity, “perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it.” So it is with authenticity in our political candidates. When Vice President Joe Biden spoke to Stephen Colbert on Friday, that was authenticity. It was warmth, humanity, and a feeling that this is a man who means what he says and says what he means. In his political past, Biden has sometimes been mocked for his gaffes. But given how the American people now seem to prefer authenticity to staged control, perhaps this really is Joe Biden’s time. I agree with those who believe that, if he does decide to get into the race, his poll numbers will shoot upward, at least initially. The ensuing battle will get bloody.
Of course, his deep pain in the wake of the death of his beloved son, Beau, 46, may really make it impossible for him to make the emotional commitment to a Presidential bid. He knows what he is getting into, and he is still in the early throes of the grieving process. The late, revered Washington Post writer David Broder once wrote something along the lines of: those who are willing to do what is necessary to run for President should be Constitutionally barred from holding the office. Some other writer noted that anyone who claims to “love campaigning” is either a liar or a psychopath. I suspect that, unless we have done it, we can barely begin to imagine to toll a Presidential campaign takes on the candidate and his or her family.
I’ve only been with Joe Biden a couple of times, but his demeanor tapped a response akin to that experienced whenever I was with the late congressman Joe Moakley – a charismatic, warm, smart, experienced individual who wore his power well and never lost the sense of who he was and where he came from. Part of me wants Biden to run because he would be great for the democratic process, the Democratic Party and the office of President. The other part of me wants to throw my arms around him and protect him from what he’d have to go through to get there.
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