“Sincerity – if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”
– Comedian George Burns
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We’ve just experienced a week in politics that was in turn sincere and something a good deal less. For once during this pre-primary season the guy with the squirrel on his head didn’t completely dominate the news. Rather two guys who will never be president and one who might, but hasn’t – and maybe won’t – announce showed us what the “real” campaign has been missing.
Let’s call it sincerity or, if you prefer, authenticity.
Vice President Joe Biden’s wrenchingly candid visit last week with Stephen Colbert on late night television was the “authentic” political moment of the week – maybe the decade. Biden, still coming to grips with the too-early death of his son, Beau, talked from the heart (not from the talking points) about loss, love, politics and what’s really important. Only a complete cynic could have watched the conversation and not felt that the oft maligned, gaffe prone vice president wasn’t a real guy dealing with the kind of real loss only a father (or mother) can know.
The pundits are all over the map about whether Biden will make a “late” entry into the Democratic primary contest and I won’t hazard a guess, but regardless of what Biden ultimately decides to do he has shown the tired and hungry voters what a politician who is also human looks like.
Two Guys Who Will Never be President…
Rick Perry, the oft-maligned former governor of Texas, in a way did something similar. Facing reality, as in no money and no support, Perry became the first of many to exit the Republican race. He might have held on a while longer, gone through the motions of another debate, but it seems as though Perry knew he was toast and pulled the plug on his toaster, er, campaign. For a guy who stumbled and bumbled through the 2012 campaign and spent the last three years attempting to re-invent himself with new glasses and serious policy pronouncements, Perry’s announcement seemed like a statement of authenticity from a guy who always looked like a deer caught in the political headlights once he got north of Austin.
The other unusually authentic moment in recent days was, from of all people, the stumbling, bumbling governor of Louisiana Bobby Jindal. Jindal did what every other Republican presidential candidate and most every responsible person in the party wants to do – he went all Trump on The Donald.
During a speech in Washington, Jindal called Trump “unstable,” “a narcissist,” “unserious,” and “a carnival act.”
“I want to say what everyone is thinking about Donald Trump but is afraid to say,” Jindal said as he ripped Trump the same way Trump rips everyone.
“He is shallow, there is no substance. He doesn’t know anything about policy, he has no idea what he is talking about. He makes it up on the fly,” Jindal said.
Conservative columnist Kathleen Parker correctly said Jindal was a “1 percenter [in the polls] with nothing too lose.” But give the governor credit for candor even if he was playing his Trump card in order to gin up attention for a campaign that is going no where. For good measure Jindal condemned Trump’s latest broadside disparaging Carly Fiorina’s looks, a comment Trump, of course, denied, but also clearly said.
“I think it’s pretty outrageous for him to be attacking anybody’s appearance when he looks like he’s got a squirrel sitting on his head,” Jindal told CBS News. Thanks to Jindal we have a new metric for the campaign: Trump leading in Iowa and in also in squirrels siting on his head. At long last the GOP campaign is getting down to substance.
The chattering classes – yours truly included – have spent the summer trying to fathom the rise of the Bloviator from 5th Avenue and, I think, the answers are many, complex and disturbing. But nothing explains Trump and the current political season more than the American longing for something real, even if in Trump’s case “real” means beneath contempt.
Say what you will about Trump, and I’ll say more soon about where he may be taking the Grand Old Party, but what you see is what you get. A letter to the editor writer in a paper I regularly read said it pretty succulently.
“I like what Donald Trump is doing even though I could never vote for him,” she wrote. “He is busy bulldozing the barricades of political correctness. Donald “Trumps” them all with his bravado. His campaign is a momentary breath of fresh air — freedom to speak our minds; thus the high rating in the polls. He has cleared the way for men like Ted Cruz and Rand Paul to be even bolder without the media spinning their thoughts into unrecognizable smudge. Perception is everything. The number of people viewing the debates has doubled, and those voters are hearing the candidates for themselves. Yes.”
Yes, indeed. Trump may be a bully, a bore and buffoon, but he is a real bully, bore and buffoon. You can’t fake Trump’s kind of sincerity.
The Appalling Success of Trump…
The gifted historian Margaret MacMillan, a Canadian who understands leadership and American politics, correctly describes a significant part of Trump’s appeal.
MacMillan told the Globe and Mail newspaper: “I think there’s a real longing among the public for leaders who say, ‘Look, this is where I stand and this is what I think and, if you don’t like it, let me explain what I want to do and why.’ This dynamic is part of the appalling success of Donald Trump. He’s not afraid to say what he thinks, and people – in my view completely mistakenly – find this authentic and refreshing in a politician.”
Trump’s appeal is more complex and more troubling than his “truth telling” in the cause of destroying political correctness, but his say-what’s-on-his-mind approach to politics is so completely at odds with the poll tested sound bites of John Boehner and Hillary Clinton as to truly make him appear to be something special to a sizable group of Republican voters.
Clinton’s handlers meanwhile are so desperate to set free their inauthentic candidate from her stilted self that they have hit the re-set button for about the twelfth time in the effort to try and make Hillary human.
“They want to show her humor,” one Clinton adviser said recently. “They want to show her heart.” The coming months for the still front-running Democrat will “be a period of trying to shed her scriptedness.”
The latest Clinton makeover prompted the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank to quip, “Planned spontaneity? A scripted attempt to go off script? This puts the ‘moron’ into oxymoron.”
Ironically, perhaps the one thing each party’s polling leader shares is a need to behave like an authentic real person. Trump needs to begin to act and talk like a mature adult and not a completely self absorbed teenager who meets every challenge with a put down, while Clinton needs to act and talk like she’s not the political equivalent of the voice of GPS system in your car – all business and no humanity.
Joe Biden’s favor to the country last week was to show us how much we dislike phonies and appreciate authenticity. Being human after all shouldn’t require practice or makeovers.
“I’m not an old, experienced hand at politics,” Democrat Adali Stevenson said as he was about to lose the presidency for the second time in 1956. “But I am now seasoned enough to have learned that the hardest thing about any political campaign is how to win without proving that you are unworthy of winning.”
Most of us intuitively know that Trump’s deliberate bluster and Clinton’s scripted calculation are manufactured characteristics that have more to do with their own deep seated insecurities than with the qualities we actually admire and seek in a leader. Real leadership is about being secure enough to listen, not just talk. It’s also about sincerity, humility, self-awareness, humor, empathy and decency. Gosh, those sounds like human characteristics.
Neither candidate currently leading the polls is likely during the interminable campaign to convince a majority of voters that they are real people with real human characteristics and are deserving of leading the country. Neither seems likely to win, as Adali Stevenson said, without proving they are unworthy of winning.
While fearing that we’ll be forced to settle for something less we keep looking for someone who doesn’t need to re-invent themselves in order to be “authentic,” we keep looking for a winner worthy of winning.