The Authenticity Thing
January 24, 2008; Page A16

Fashions come and go when the American voter goes shopping for a new president. In 1912 they chose the reformist Princeton egghead, Woodrow Wilson, over two heavyweights, incumbent William Howard Taft and a former president, Teddy Roosevelt. In 1976, weary of Watergate, they picked a peanut farmer. Four years later, Hollywood sophistication was no obstacle, but by 1992 anonymous Southern governors were back into fashion.

George H.W. Bush established the benchmark for his presidency with an offhand remark, "Oh, the vision thing." Who'd have thought that the presidential accessory that would prove most popular in this election would be authenticity?

Way back in April, four months into the November 2008 presidential campaign, the Washington Post announced, "There are things in politics that money can't buy, and chief among them is the quality of authenticity." The subject was Mitt Romney, and ever since, this campaign has had a thing for authenticity. If John McCain is the beaming victor the evening of Nov. 4, he should thank Mr. Romney.

Political authenticity isn't easy to define. Some would say the words are mutually exclusive. Others say that authenticity is a matter of whether a politician operates out of something real inside or is making his politics up as he goes along. Perhaps the easiest test for authenticity in an electorate of more than one million voters is the one Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart applied to hard-core pornography: "I know it when I see it."

Authenticity is a high bar for most politicians. Americans consider the trait so rare that once found, they carve the hero's face into the side of a mountain or name national holidays after them. It is a measure of Barack Obama's high aspirations that this past Sunday, the day before Martin Luther King Jr. Day, he delivered a homily at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.

Most voters think of themselves as real people. So they press the template of their own authenticity against the candidates, who then try to campaign as "real" people when their career choice has made them mercurial and inconstant. No one objects to the phrase, "political chameleon."

One almost feels sorry for the 13 or 14 pols who've been running for the presidency this year. Keeping the authenticity balloon afloat is hard work. For starters, the press is obsessed with the phenomenon. The modern reporter is a human tuning fork, alert to the merest false note of inconsistency. It isn't widely known, but no journalist is allowed to moderate a presidential debate unless he vows to turn every question into an accusation of hypocrisy.

The famous catfight during Monday night's debate between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama was about tearing down the other's high claims in a party whose primary voters place a premium on being an authentic Man or Woman of the Left. Hillary was trying to jackhammer Barack's foundational opposition to the Iraq war. Barack said he was toiling in the streets with the people while Hillary was getting paid by demon Wal-Mart. Hillary stared, while sharp little knives poured from her eyes. Hillary said he trafficked with slumlords. At the end of the evening, they both looked smaller.

On the Republican side, the 2008 campaigners' efforts to stay real in public for over a year have produced mixed results.

The bad news we know. After the Washington Post dinged Mitt Romney's authenticity in April, the AP's Ron Fournier was still writing in December of "nagging doubts about his authenticity." Iowa's caucuses arrived and despite hundreds of statewide appearances and TV commercials, Mitt lost to Mike Huckabee. Sure, the evangelicals lifted Gov. Huckabee over the top, but Arkansas's own Huck put across a personal authenticity, however ersatz, that Mitt couldn't match.

I find Mr. Romney's authenticity problem odd. As a person, he seems decent and gracious. One may assume that the lifelong exercise of his religion consists of persistent and steady virtue. He looks genuinely discomfited when his debate partners go to the mud pots. But he is compulsively variable in his political life. The Michigan economic pander worked -- in Michigan. One can hardly wait to see what gets promised to Super Tuesday's 21 states. Mr. Romney doesn't deny his political flexibility; he sincerely regards it as an attribute, as reason for electing him.

Rudy Giuliani's bid for authenticity is born out of his prosecutor days. He's been nails tough and unbendable -- first as a federal prosecutor and then as New York's mayor. But ex-prosecutors run the risk of unloosing a whiff of personal fanaticism that makes some people uncomfortable. Think Patrick Fitzgerald. Can an Inspector Javert be president?

Authenticity in politicians may be a notion more honored than rewarded. Ask Fred Thompson. Bill Clinton won two terms with a personality closer to a Southern tent preacher than, say, Dwight Eisenhower's majestic steadiness. John McCain has been riding the Straight Talk Express for eight years, like the man who never returned. The press's tuning forks revered the senator's maverick authenticity until he got too close to George Bush's unpopular war. That put his campaign into a tailspin last year.

Now he's back and in the lead, in large part because he embraced the Bush-Petraeus surge when it was not easy to do so. Sen. McCain succeeded when the surge succeeded, a result born of commitment withdepth, not calculation. But once away from national honor and security, Sen. McCain is a political labyrinth.

If we want a better understanding of the style of authenticity that people who vote are looking for, consider the real meaning of Barack Obama's controversial praise for Ronald Reagan. Sen. Obama was correct that Reagan caught the nation's need for a new direction, which is now the senator's claim. But Reagan's published letters and papers make clear that he believed in his political ideas for a long time. By 1980, they were deep and clear. They were authentic.

If that is the standard of true political authenticity, and I think it is, then the relationship in this campaign between the people and the pols will remain as it has been -- difficult.

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