Like beauty, pornography, and soul, it is hard to define authenticity. As Supreme Court Justice Byron White noted, “you just know it when you see it”. But it is the sine qua non for any successful presidential candidate. Americans demand a President they can relate to and, even more importantly, one who can relate to them. It is an issue that is particularly important today because Millennials absolutely demand it and will simply not vote if they don’t see it. I wrote about this extensively in my 2008 book, The Way We’ll Be, when I said this group of young people has a built-in “bullshit meter” and they want the “steak not the sizzle”.
As I look through history, we just know which of our leaders could communicate with us and which ones could not. FDR and JFK were born into families of extreme wealth and privilege, but each had a leveling experience in life that made them equal to the pain that the most pained among us feel. Harry Truman was the common man and LBJ had been a school teacher in East Texas. Ike was the war hero and genius who hid behind tortured syntax. Nixon’s life was one of hurt and he wore it. Ford stumbled rhetorically and physically; Jimmy Carter was a physicist but a common peanut farmer, and had a smile that exuded pathos. While Ronald Reagan was a “Grade B Actor”, he could spin a yarn and connect directly telling one of his very personal stories. He just loved stories and Americans grew to just love him. George Bush 41 was a true patrician but so humble he never bragged about himself, even when he was supposed to. And his son, George Bush 43 was the “cat with the platinum spoon” but there was a vulnerability there that made you hurt for the under-achieving son. He was the one you just wanted to have a beer with – even though he could not touch the stuff. Barack Obama was abandoned by two fathers and raised by a single Mom – a sad and growingly authentic American story. And Bill Clinton, wow. He truly felt our pain because he had so much of his own as a child.
These are the things we never got to see about Tom Dewey, Adlai Stevenson, Walter Mondale, Al Gore, or John Kerry. Imagine, the bona fide decorated war hero (Kerry) was denied his major claim to bonding with fellow Americans. Bob Dole and John McCain had it – but they ran against history. Michael Dukakis had rich and relatable ethnic roots but refused to talk about them – until he was pulverized by the Roger Ailes Machine.
So what is our choice today between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump? Clinton tells her story of being a woman against the tide but there is only low tide in her public life. She didn’t kick down doors, they were always open for her. She fought the good fight, but what did she win? She traveled more miles than anyone else as Secretary of State, but what did she accomplish? Her one real deal, the Trans Pacific Partnership, she eschews today. She is a good Mom and a grandmother but she gets no credit. She stood by her man while she claimed she wasn’t going to be just, like Tammy Wynettte, and just stand by her man. She has a very hard time telling us who she is. We know she is running because it is her turn – but that is something she and her husband declared but has yet to be validated. In a world where many of us have to reinvent ourselves, she reinvents over and over again – but seldom seems to connect.
To a large degree Donald Trump is authentic – he is a truly authentic jerk. He is bombastic, narcissistic, egotistical, thin-skinned, self-promoting, and crude. In all of this he is probably genuine because he has never tried to portray himself as anything but all of the above.
And in that very important respect, Trump comes off as more real. What you see is what you get. No pretense and no sanctimony. But, at the same time, that is why he has a ceiling of support he cannot seem to blast through.
Clinton herself posed a very important question that she should have let someone else ask: why isn’t she 50 points ahead? The brilliant Jeff Greenfield writes that Clinton’s stagnation in the polls in September is actually a good sign for her because, in his reasoning, this will scare the hell out of Millennials who will see that Trump can actually win. I am not convinced. As long as undecided voters, who know everything there can be to know about Trump, still cannot make up their minds about how they will vote in November, this race will be frozen in place. Because they just don’t know the real Hillary Clinton. I am not sure they ever will. Or at least perhaps not in time.