Our Semi-Fictional Candidates

Jon Huntsman, languishing in the low single-digits in primary polls, has recently proclaimed his acceptance of both evolution and the contribution of human activity to global warming, which in today's GOP puts him somewhere to the left of Wavy Gravy. The Atlantic's James Fallows calls this the "what the hell, I might as well keep my dignity" approach to campaigning. Slate's Dave Weigel wonders if Huntsman is channeling Jack Tanner, the fictional presidential candidate from the HBO mockumentary "Tanner '88," in which a candidate gains improbable success by throwing aside the talking points and canned speeches, and being real and authentic.

Although you probably haven't seen "Tanner '88," if the plot sounds familiar, it's because almost every fictional portrayal of a candidate you see on the screen proceeds this way. There's usually a scene in which the candidate begins giving a speech, stops in the middle and says, "This is ridiculous," to the horror of his handlers and the confusion of the crowd, then tosses away his prepared remarks and speaks from the heart. And it works -- everyone is captivated, and the candidate achieves success, at least temporarily. Here's an example of the genre, from 1998's "Bullworth," in which Warren Beatty, playing a senator running for re-election, doesn't just speak truth to power, he raps it:

This happens all the time in films. The other day I watched "The Adjustment Bureau," a mediocre adaptation of a Philip K. Dick story, and even there, in a sci-fi film, the hero, a congressman played by Matt Damon, sends his career into orbit after losing a Senate race by throwing away his prepared speech and talking to the crowd about how campaigning is all artifice and deception, down to the consultant who told him how scuffed his shoes should be. We learn that he'll eventually become president.

The classic of the genre is 1972's "The Candidate," in which a struggling Senate candidate played by Robert Redford achieves success by -- you guessed it -- throwing away the canned speeches and getting real. Here's a scene in which Redford sits in the back of his limo, mocking his own talking points:

Politics is almost never portrayed on screen with much nuance, but they wouldn't keep repeating this narrative unless it spoke to something we wish we could see. Part of the problem, though, is that the political press will say they value authenticity, but what they really value is political skill. If, like say George W. Bush or Ronald Reagan, you can offer a convincing portrayal of the authentic, an expertly enacted regular-guy routine, you'll be lauded. Those who are "stiff" -- Al Gore, John Kerry, Mitt Romney -- will be derided for being inauthentic, when the truth is that they're not offering a more phony presentation, they're just not very good actors.

But we can't just blame the press. If the voters really cared about authenticity, they'd reward people who actually threw away the talking points and spoke from the heart. But they don't. As Jon Huntsman will discover.