An Authentic Man Is Hard to Find

Authenticity is now the official cliché of choice in the Presidential contest, just as it has long been the most desired brand characteristic for every product from soft drinks to automobiles. As we approach the turn of the century-almost choking on our own knowingness, detachment and pseudo-sophistication-it is amazing how eagerly we are conned by this same old pitch.

Lately, we seem to have forgotten that “authentic” is one of those slightly deceptive terms of art that almost always signals an attempt to lift our wallets.

It’s a word that reads false on the cover of a magazine and sounds even worse on television. Exactly what do the employees of the Washington Post Company or Microsoft-NBC know about authenticity? Nothing more than the rest of us, I would dare say. Anyone who has spent more than 15 minutes in a newsroom or a television studio knows that authentic (or sincere or genuine) is not the first term that springs to mind when describing reporters, correspondents, pundits, editors or producers. They are the same professional analysts, after all, who repeatedly booed Al Gore in the pressroom during the first New Hampshire debate, and then proceeded to give the public the benefit of their own “objective” and “impartial” assessment of his performance. After putting on their makeup, of course.

What all the babble about authenticity instantly calls to mind is an old quip about success in Hollywood, or was it Madison Avenue? That the most important thing anyone can learn as an aspiring young moviemaker (or salesperson) is how to fake sincerity.

The A-word sounds especially silly when the subject is the character of politicians. It is like listening to wealthy, pretentious people talk about cheese or wine. When someone fervently assures you that what you are eating or drinking is the real thing, you are meant to know that you simply must enjoy it, whether you like it or not. And when a pundit tells you a candidate is “authentic,” you are being told with a similar lack of subtlety that you must admire and perhaps even vote for that politician.

How a pol achieves the condition of being authentic remains mysterious. It definitely helps not to know too much about him or her.

That is why journalists who have warmed to the undeniable charm of John McCain almost never dwell on his membership in an exclusive group called the “Keating Five,” no matter how germane that might be to his emphasis on campaign-finance reform. The same scribes who still fret over Hillary Clinton’s commodity trades of 20 years ago and Mr. Gore’s farm chores of 40 years ago can rarely find time or space to recount the Arizona Senator’s much more recent relationship with Charles Keating of Lincoln Savings and Loan infamy.

In brief, Mr. McCain received more than $100,000 in contributions from disreputable old Charlie and his associates, while Mr. McCain’s wife and father-in-law were brought into a lucrative shopping-mall investment by Mr. Keating. When filling out his Senate financial disclosure forms, Mr. McCain neglected to jot down the three free vacations he and his wife had enjoyed at Mr. Keating’s spread in the Bahamas (although he did repay the swindler when those trips were exposed).

As for Mr. Bradley, he too has enjoyed immunity from questions that might cast doubt on his newfound media sainthood. He was against the ethanol subsidy until he started meeting Iowa farmers, a conversion that seems as opportunistic as anything ascribed to his Democratic opponent. His explanation-that he is now a national figure rather than a parochial New Jersey official-sounds rather trite coming from a man who loftily derides the pandering of other politicians. But why quibble over such matters with a candidate who allows the TV cameras to show him buying a pair of cheap shoes in New Hampshire?

The obsession with style at the expense of substance is contagious, infecting even respected historians. Just the other day, Truman biographer David McCullough praised Mr. McCain and Mr. Bradley, contrasting them with Bill Clinton, who “was never willing to risk his political life for something he believed in.” That does sound like the puerile President portrayed in the press, but isn’t the historical truth more complicated? Flawed as he is, Mr. Clinton dared to raise taxes in his very first budget despite predictions of economic catastrophe and the fact that his predecessor was thrown out for doing the same thing. He took action in Haiti and Kosovo, ignoring similarly widespread warnings of military disaster. He gambled his Presidency on health care reform, and almost lost it.

Honesty and courage do matter, but “authenticity” tends to be an illusion. Now might be the moment to remember that this century’s greatest President was a crafty, conniving, ruthless and feisty pol who kept a mistress and pretended he didn’t need a wheelchair. What would our pundits have made of F.D.R.?

An Authentic Man Is Hard to Find