The Real Thing

With party rivals who seem more authentic than they are, George W. and Al G. are each reinventing themselves as the Real Thing.

Before, George W.'s every move and utterance was carefully scripted in advance, tested by focus groups, polished by political consultants. See him once, he's charming. See him a second time, he's still charming. This wouldn't have been a problem were it not for John McCain, who's so utterly natural he's made Bush's potted charm seem as artificial as a metallic Christmas tree. McCain is the Real Thing. Bush is losing in New Hampshire, and it's finally dawning on his handlers that no number of slick TV ads will fix the basic flaw, which is the appearance of slickness.

Join the conversation!

Discuss this article in
Political Prospects,
part of The American Prospect's Online Forums.

So now the Bush campaign is planning more spontaneous, freewheeling question-and-answer sessions with voters. Instead of relying on posed photo ops, Bush will get out and mix it up with ordinary people, off script; then the sessions will be shot and edited for a new round of TV ads that look more like mini-documentaries than commercials, giving Bush what his advisers hope will be a "new look and feel"--unvarnished, unplanned, real. This is exactly the sort of ad that McCain has been running in New Hampshire, but Bush has more money to blanket the place before the primary. Mark McKinnon, Bush's chief media adviser, says they'll show "just how hard the governor is working to earn every vote in New Hampshire." In other words, Bush will be the Real Thing-- a real person earning every vote from other real people rather than an artifice trading on a great name brand.

Gore's make-over is still in progress. Gore is by nature a careful and cautious man, which should be a plus for any president in waiting. But his campaign enveloped that natural caution within layers of extra-secure packaging, on the assumption he'd ride into a primary victory if he did nothing wrong. Gore then ran headlong into Bill Bradley, who's so unpackaged as to be almost naked. So Gore has changed his tack. He's gone from being wooden and ponderous to being almost hyperkinetic, from dark blue suits to brown and from white shirts to softer colors, from standing stiffly at the podium to moving into the audience to take questions.

Both Bush and Gore had played it safe and well-rehearsed, which is exactly what any candidate whose primary win is "inevitable" is supposed to do. Why risk spontaneous bloopers when all you need to do is ride it out by tried-and-true formula? But each ran into the one thing that would wreck the formula--a rival natural enough to draw attention to the calculated hubris of the formula itself.

The problem for Bush and Gore is that it's hard to "become" authentic because even if the new act is convincing, the public is likely to remember who you were before. A make-over is an inauthentic act. It feels like a calculated cover-up, inauthenticity piled on inauthenticity.

So Bush and Gore must hope either that the public disregards how they acted before or that the public believes their previous acts weren't real and their authentic selves are only now breaking through. Either way, they have to in effect renounce the inauthenticity of their former selves--confess to the former sin of artifice. "I listened too much to my handlers." "I couldn't bear being cooped up that way." "That person before was playing a role he had to play as loyal vice president and presidential candidate. That's over."

It might have been better for them if they'd remained authentically scripted; calculated authenticity is harder to pull off. The American public can smell a phony clear across the continent. Madison Avenue has schooled TV viewers in the artifice of authenticity with those "natural" people in laxative ads who look straight into a camera that wiggles and jiggles around them. Bill Clinton's passionate "I didn't ... with that woman" runs repeatedly through the public mind like some monstrously cynical continuous loop, warning against trusting anyone in public life to mean what they say no matter how sincerely they appear to say it.

So in judging authenticity, consistency matters. And by this score, McCain's and Bradley's acts seem more credible. McCain, as everyone knows, was shot down in Vietnam, withstood torture, and in the Senate wouldn't give in to pressure from his Republican colleagues. What you see is what you'll get. He might make a lousy president, but there's no doubt he's tough and principled. "I'm not afraid of losing," he says at the end of his stump speeches, "because I know that I'll act on principle if I'm not afraid of losing." Bradley, for his part, is the same rumpled, high-minded, unpretentious person he's always been. He began visiting voters in their living rooms almost three years ago, talking off the cuff, eschewing pollsters and handlers, and he's still doing the same thing. You might disagree with his policy stands on this or that. But no one doubts he's real.

California's primary may be Bush's and Gore's only way out of the box. California is a big state whose politics relies almost entirely on television ads, and it's a place that has always fed on fantasy--gold rushes, Hollywood, Disneyland, Ronald Reagan, Internet zillionaires. No one has ever accused Californians of being overly concerned about reality. Yet if that's still true, how to explain the gubernatorial win of Gray Davis, whose name perfectly exemplifies who he is? If Californians decide they want the Real Thing on March 7, American politics may never be the same again. ¤

You may also like