The Candidates Play the Authenticity Game

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:21

    than in 1992, when those who bothered to vote desperately wanted someone to lead the country out of the recession (never mind that it was already ending). The '00 contestants are endeavoring to be all-whatever. Yet there've been a few snags.

    Bill Bradley has been hawking himself as the non-packaged politician, a down-to-earth fellow with real-American values. His pitch is simple: What you see is what you get. But he's also enlisted a claque of Madison Avenue ad execs to cook up an advertising campaign. The slogan they invented is the Nike-esque "It Can Happen." Alex Kroll, the adman in charge, caused a day of bad press for Bradley last week when it was reported that Kroll headed Young & Rubicam when it was handling the Joe Camel account for R.J. Reynolds Tobacco. Bradley has his own Big Tobacco connection! exclaimed the Gore posse (who are still smarting from the stink raised when Gore retained as his main message man Carter Eskew, the architect of the tobacco industry's $40 million propaganda blitz against the Clinton-Gore-backed tobacco legislation). Kroll dismissed it, noting R.J. Reynolds was but one of 5000 clients for whom his firm toiled, and the flap blew over. But what was most significant about this tempest was that Bradley?supposedly the anti-Slick Willie?had retained the same hucksters who plot devious ways to prey upon consumers' insecurities in order to sell them soap, toothpaste, beer and cars. Not so authentic.

    There was something distinctly inauthentic?Howard Kurtz at The Washington Post called it "highly misleading"?about one of the first two television ads the Bradley campaign unveiled. In the spot, a woman named Maureen Drumm noted that Bradley proposed a law allowing women to stay in the hospital for 48 hours after giving birth and that because of that "my daughter is alive today." Within seconds of its release, reporters discovered that Drumm's comment was not accurate. In 1993?two years before Bradley proposed the law?Drumm and her first child developed problems 26 hours after the delivery. But her insurance company allowed her to remain in the hospital and the illness was treated. She went on to have another child. The daughter who "is alive today" thanks to Bradley actually is her third child, according to the Bradley campaign. How so? Bradley's mouthpieces say Drumm would have been too afraid to have this child without Bradley's two-day hospital stay law?even though she received her two days during her problematic first pregnancy and then went through a second pregnancy without this law. The Bradley ad was stretching the truth. Even worse, when opponents and reporters challenged the Bradleyites on this, Eric Hauser, his press secretary, indignantly pronounced all criticism of the ad an attack on Drumm. CNN's Bernard Shaw said the Bradley advertising campaign is "selling integrity." That's a nice way of putting it. But integrity is better demonstrated than sold.

    George W. Bush would seem to be on the winning side of the authenticity gap with Vice President Al Gore, if only because he is no mystery. Gore, on the other hand, is a definition-in-waiting: Washingtonian or Tennessean, mountain-climbing jock or Internet nerd, loyal hanger-on or his own man, dark suit or tan suit, alpha or beta? Bush is a fratboy who was, like Gore, born into the right family. (Now that the coke and National Guard questions have been shoved aside, here's another query: How did a guy with a C average at Yale get into Harvard's Business School?) As for authenticity, Bush's problem has become authentic intelligence. To prove he's no ninny on foreign policy, he gave a speech on the subject last week. But a more revealing event came a few days prior to the address, when AP reporter Glen Johnson conducted a phone interview with Bush about the upcoming speech. During that conversation, Bush read Johnson a portion of the draft speech in which he promised to take action "if the Russian government attacks innocent women and children in Chechnya." Johnson asked if such attacks were already under way. Bush had no answer. He moved the phone from his mouth and called out to someone, "They are attacking women and children, aren't they?" He then told Johnson, "Condi Rice"?that's Condoleeza Rice, who worked at the National Security Council for Bush's father?"is shaking her head in agreement." It seems reasonable to expect a presidential candidate to know whether or not Russia is engaged in a public activity that warrants U.S. threats before he issues such a threat. Bush was willing to bang his chest without possessing the crucial details?an authentic Bush moment.

    The Republican with the most serious authenticity problem is Steve Forbes. He ran in 1996 as a New Jersey horse-country libertarian. He mocked the religious right, refused to talk the talk on abortion. This time out, he's campaigning as if he were reared in the Bible Belt, not the manse country of the Garden State. He's gotten religion on abortion, and he's come out for a new gimmick to push prayer into public schools. At a campaign stop in Trenton last week, the publisher-candidate declared his support for state legislation that would require public school children each morning to recite a 56-word passage from the Declaration of Independence ("We hold these truths to be self-evident..."). This is an idea worthy of the propagandists of North Korea or the old Soviet Union. What could render these words more meaningless than rote recitation? This brainwashing bill has been around for 11 years, yet not until Forbes was trying to corral Christian rightists into his camp did he endorse it. How authentic is his support?

    Authenticity is much in demand, but short in supply. John McCain, the fierce and earnest advocate of campaign finance reform, pockets gobs of cash from the special interests he decries, claiming he has to play by the current rules of the corrupt game. His message: I may be authentic, but I'm no fool. Pat Buchanan, that devoted anti-Communist, heartily accepts the endorsement of pseudo-Marxist and political cult leader Lenora Fulani. Buchanan?say what you want about his hateful rhetoric and demagogic tribalism?used to be, at least, an authentic ideas man, one who preached absolutist and fundamentalist values. Now he's just another situationalist.

    So who is the most authentic guy in the race? Donald Trump. He's genuinely abrasive, crass, egomaniacal, weird and impetuous?and he makes absolutely no effort to hide any of that. I'm not pronouncing him the most authentic because I like his soak-the-rich-and-erase-the-debt proposal, his criticism of the NAFTA treaty, his opposition to privatizing Social Security and his call for Canadian-style universal health insurance. He does, alas, appear much too eager to carpet bomb North Korea. With all his hubris, there's not much room for hypocrisy. If the public is truly hankering for authenticity, Trump may be wise to ante up.

    Making Kosovo Safe for Gangsters As President Clinton was preparing for his trip to Kosovo last week, I came across an e-mail from an acquaintance who works in the Pentagon and who was recently in Kosovo. His note was a scathing counter to the official happy-talk appraisals of life in Kosovo. For example, when Gen. Michael Jackson, NATO's top commander in Kosovo, recently vacated that post, he declared, "We have seen a return to normality" in Kosovo. He also hailed the "successful demilitarization" of the Kosovo Liberation Army and "the establishment of law and order." My Pentagon pal's dispatch neatly sums up the troubles there?and illustrates the hollowness of the Clinton promises that accompanied the bombing of that province. With his permission?and in accordance with his wish to remain unidentified and employed?here are his observations: "Things seem much gloomier today than when I was there in the summer. I can only speak for myself (and the dozens or so various people who told me similar things), rather than on behalf of the U.S. government, but it is clear the UCK (KLA to non-Albanophones) is totally out of control, and unlikely to live up to its commitments on demilitarization. Ethnic Serbs and Roma continue to be attacked and leave the province. Right after I left the city of Pec (Peja in Albanian) in the western part of Kosovo, where violence was at its heaviest in the spring, a group of Serbs leaving the province, only ten miles from crossing into Montenegro, was attacked by a mob and barely got out alive (though their cars were all burned). Some of our (US) guys told me that in several villages where the ethnic Albanian citizens had elected their own mayors and councils, the UCK came in and told them who their new mayors would be. It's clear that disenchantment with the UCK is not limited to Serbs. It also appears that the judicial system is a sham, since all judges not associated with the UCK have been shot at or have quit their jobs or have been intimidated into releasing suspects. It's possible the UN Mission will turn that around, but I'm not optimistic. In essence, the international community went into Los Angeles, drove out a corrupt and brutal LAPD, and left the Bloods and Crips as the de facto government. This is hardly an original revelation on my part, but the vision of a multi-ethnic Kosovo is giving way to reverse ethnic cleansing. I agree that we needed to dp something about the mayhem which Milosevic and Company authored. Unfortunately, it seems that we drove the Yugoslav military and police out with the promise that we (the entire international community) could provide a safe and stable environment for all Kosovo's citizens. And we just could not deliver."

    So much for the authenticity of that Clinton endeavor.