Intro: New York Times columnist, Paul Krugman, recently argued that we shouldn’t care so much about a presidential candidates “authenticity.” What matters, he said, is where the candidate stands on various policy issues. Richard Harwood disagrees. He’s the founder of the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation.
WPR: What does it mean, exactly, for a politician to be “authentic”?
Richard Harwood: Let me talk about what it means to be authentic juxtaposed to practice “politics as usual.” It’s the juxtaposition that people are so concerned about. Think about this: on the one hand the authentic would be to reflect in your words and actions people’s reality. And now people believe that most politicians active distort reality in order to win votes. People believe that authenticity is your ability to reflect the wholeness of a situation. That you understand different perspectives – even the ambiguities – of a situation. Think about what happens in “politics as usual.” We refuse to acknowledge other points of view in a political debate as if they don’t exist or as if they’re not meaningful or important to people. I think being authentic means that you actually have a sense of affection for public life, for politics, and for people. Where as in politics as usual, what we often see is a kind of slash-and-burn tactic.
WPR: This is beginning to sound like a pretty trick quality to evaluate. And yet I guess I would have said we all kind of have a gut sense – pretty much right away – as to whether a candidate or anybody we meet in authentic or not. It has more to do with how they seem, how they project themselves, how they walk and talk.
RH: I think that’s true. We have an initial take on people. But I think authenticity can be judged only over time. When we see an individual engage in debate, when we see an individual pressed by their opponents, we begin to see what they’re made of, how deep their authenticity runs.
WPR: When our current president, George Bush, was running for office, he scored very well in terms of authenticity. People said, famously, “George Bush was the guy you’d want to go have a beer with,” whereas somebody like Al Gore or John Kerry -- they thought those guys were way too smooth, not “authentic.” However, I’m not sure that over time George Bush’s seeming authenticity has really stood up.
RH: It hasn’t. I think earlier, before he was even the Republican nominee, many people did a double take on him. First they thought, Well, maybe I don’t want to support him. Then he started to talk about being a “compassionate conservative.” He talked about the need for education reform. His plain-spokenness I think people thought was genuine on his part. I think here’s a good example of someone who, on first take, may have seemed authentic to many people but over time has lost that sense of authenticity and now, frankly, finds himself in a deep hole.
WPR: And what happened to make him lose it? Is there a moment that you remember where you looked at him, or where the nation looked at him, where you thought, Whoops! That’s not authentic!
RH: I don’t know if there was a single moment. Obviously, many people talk about or point to the “Mission Accomplished” moment as sort of a crystallizing moment in retrospect.
WPR: That’s where Bush appeared in a flak jacket.
RH: That’s right. But I’m not sure there was a single moment for the president. I think in most recent months it has been his unwillingness to acknowledge the realities on the ground in Iraq. On the one hand he put together and supported the Iraq Commission and then simply discarded the report overnight. I think there are any number of things that added up to his losing his authenticity.
WPR: Let’s run through, just to flesh out this question of authenticity – let’s run through some of the current candidates for president. What about Hillary Clinton? How would you rate her in terms of authenticity?
RH: I think many people have doubts about her authenticity. I think they wonder if she is mostly out for herself as opposed to for people. They wonder whether or not she is so calculating. I think many people are still waiting to judge her, but there are many, I think, who have turned the other way.
WPR: And yet, I would guess that if you look at how Hillary Clinton has voted and what she has said about some of her key issues over the years – the Iraq war aside, which she has waffled on – but if you look at some other things – healthcare for instance – she’s been pretty consistent all along. Her values seem to have been pretty straightforward all along. Which would suggest that she is an authentic person.
RH: It would suggest that she’s consistent. But that’s not all that authenticity is about.
WPR: What about Barack Obama? Of all the candidates, he’s the one who’s most consistently talked about and praised for seeming like a real person, a genuine candidate.
RH: He’s almost the exact opposite, I suspect, of where Hillary Clinton is. So Barack Obama, I think, scores very high on an authenticity barometer. If you listen to the language he uses, if you listen to how he puts together ideas, if you listen to how he actually addresses the concerns that people hold and doesn’t try to dodge them, he’s laying out a narrative for people about how he sees things and where he believes we ought to go – and where we, as individual citizens fit into that. I think where he has more of a problem is when he tries to translate that narrative to direct policy issues. And there he has, I think – well, it’s not an authenticity issue that he suffers from; it’s an authority issue. It’s the extent of his knowledge, his experience, how many times has he been around the block, do we believe that he can respond to crises and tough situations. So he’s the exact opposite in many respects of where Hillary Clinton finds herself.
WPR: What about John Edwards? How’s he doing on the authenticity question?
RH: I’m not sure. Many people seem to like what he has to say. I think they wonder about how his message has evolved over the last four years. It’s not clear to me that he breaks through the crowd.
WPR: With John Edward, I guess, people sort of worry that he’s just a slick trial lawyer. He looks good. He looks authentic. But he’d say anything to win the crowd?
RH: Well, I think your authenticity is rooted over time in a narrative that emerges about you. John Edwards’ narrative is, in part, one that he’s very ambitious in that he wants to be president. He was only in the Senate for a short number of years. Then all of a sudden you have the sense that he was slick. And then the haircut episode came out, with him spending hundreds of dollars for a haircut. And then his going back and forth over what really happened there. All of those things add up for people. In an era of You Tube, in an era of 24-hour cable TV and radio, once a narrative is set it’s very hard to break away from it – unless you break out in the campaign itself.
WPR: What about on the Republican side? John McCain was a guy who had a reputation for being a straight shooter – somebody who’d “tell it like it is.” He seems to have lost that in the last couple of years.
RH: He did. Remember he had the “straight talk express” which was a marvel of political operations, in a sense. He was seen as the real deal. He lost to George Bush in 2000 and then all of a sudden, at some point a number of years ago, he took a turn and decided he would embrace the George Bush political operation, the George Bush political approach of raising lots of money, of bringing in the establishment. Somewhere along the line he lost his authenticity. He seemed more an insider that the maverick people had come to know. I think in doing so he lost his relevance.
WPR: What about Rudy Giuliani? You think if ever anybody was going to be his true self, Giuliani couldn’t be anything else but, having gone through 9/11 with the people of New York.
RH: Yes, I think Rudy Giuliani is a great example of someone who has been consistently – for him – authentic. He had that question for a bit about abortion and a number of other issues, but then he came out an reset his positions that were more consistent with his past. I think the question for Giuliani is not whether or not he’s authentic but whether or not people like what he has to say. This is a case, for me, less about authenticity and more about likeability, more about whether or not people agree with him.
WPR: There’s another potential candidate who’s getting a lot of buzz and that’s the actor and ex-senator, Fred Thompson. What’s your take on him?
RH: When I think of Fred Thompson, I think of something that Barack Obama said early on in his candidacy, which was, “People like me so much not because of what I say but because they want to project onto me.” I think Fred Thompson at the moment is the Republicans’ authenticity hope. He embodies, in a sense, or personifies, their desire for some candidate of stature to step forward and be the new Ronald Reagan, to have an aura about him, to be believable, to be able to spin out this narrative about where we are and where we’re going. I think for Fred Thompson the dilemma is that that’s a very tall order to fill!
WPR: It makes you wonder whether politics is simply becoming another form of reality TV where what we’re being shown is what looks like it’s real but it’s all highly manufactured.
RH: I think it is becoming like reality TV but I’m actually optimistic. I believe that in the coming years we’ll find such disgust with this reality TV version of politics and it will seem so vacuous and so empty and so devoid of any kind of meaning that we will decided enough is enough and we’ll look for candidates who better reflect what our real aspirations are. I say this in part because I just finished going on a 30-city book tour and in that book tour I found new elected officials who actually are doing this. Michael Bloomberg, the mayor of New York; Cory Booker who’s had his ups and downs in Newark but who I think is one of these officials; Adrian Fenty, the mayor of Washington; a young guy in Youngstown, the mayor, the first African-American ever elected, J. Williams. I believe that these candidates are starting to bubble up from the local level. And it’s only a matter of time until we see them nationally.