A week after Mitt Romney announced that he wouldn’t run for president again, I’m still bemused by one notion that drove his flirtation with a third campaign: Romney’s team reportedly thought that voters would respond positively if they just got to know the real Mitt.
Mull that for a moment. Although Romney spent the better part of a decade pursuing the presidency, he did so in such a closed and guarded fashion that his own inner circle concluded voters didn’t really know him.
It’s an interesting jumping off point for a contemplation of political authenticity.
But first, a definition. By politically authentic, I mean someone who presents him or herself more or less as what they are rather than adopting a carefully crafted campaign persona. And who stays reasonably true to their core beliefs rather than setting sail under a flag of ideological convenience. Plus two stipulations. True believers usually view their party’s candidates as the very emblem of authenticity, the other party’s as its antithesis. And: Judgments about who is real or genuine obviously involve a good deal of subjectivity.
And yet, some political figures clearly stand out as authentic.
Ronald Reagan was one. Yes, some critics considered him an actor playing the role of a lifetime, but most people felt that what you saw with the Gipper was basically what you got. That sense served him well; voters tended to like him even when they disagreed on issues, something that seems all the more remarkable in these more polarized times.
But authenticity can prove an evanescent asset. Being an earnest, decent, upright Michigander helped Jerry Ford when he took over after the resignation of Richard Nixon, one of the most scheming and contrived figures in modern politics, but it wasn’t enough to carry the day against Jimmy Carter.
Carter’s own authenticity, meanwhile, didn’t wear well over time. Mind you, it wasn’t his personal qualities that doomed his presidency. Inflation, high interest rates, gas prices, and foreign-policy failures sufficed to do that. Yet by the end of his four years in the White House, what initially seemed like honest, earnest goodness had taken on the tiresome tone of eat-your-peas sanctimony.
George H.W. Bush certainly had no truck with authenticity. He underwent public political plastic surgery to remake himself as Reagan’s understudy and heir — and won a term of his own, despite the obvious artificiality of it all. But when poor Bob Dole promised to be “another Ronald Reagan” — and even styled himself something of a supply-sider — he didn’t have similar luck.
The Clintons are too complicated, calculated, and consumed with control to qualify as genuine, though their attempts to feign authenticity can prove diverting. George W. Bush’s frat-boy jocularity seemed real, but not his affected Texas play-to-the-cheap-seats populism.
Barack Obama, contrariwise, does seem authentic, from his high-minded seriousness of purpose to his interiority and disdain for the deal-cutting grubbiness of politics. Ditto John McCain, testiness and all.
No discussion of this topic can avoid two local figures, John Kerry and Romney himself. Both suffered from pronounced authenticity gaps, coming off as elitists clumsily trying to pretend otherwise. They gave us two campaign classics in the category of striking-a-false-note-when-aiming-for-a-common-chord, both centered around hunting.
“Can I get me a hunting license here?” Kerry inquired in an Ohio store in 2004.
“I’ve always been a rodent and rabbit hunter,” Romney claimed in 2007. “Small varmints, if you will.”
What, really, can be said about that? That those remarks themselves don’t already say, that is.
Now, authenticity obviously doesn’t always carry the electoral day. Voters can judge you real but still think you are too conservative or too liberal or too ornery or too odd or too weak for the job.
And yet there are certainly advantages to being true to yourself on the campaign trail.
You won’t seem like a phony.
And if you lose, as most presidential hopefuls do, you won’t be left wondering if it all might have turned out differently if you’d just run as who you are.