We’re hearing a lot this week about authenticity, as in Joe Biden has it and Hillary Clinton does not (Kevin McCarthy, meanwhile, maybe a little too much of it). Except that in fact, the reason that authenticity is in the news is that these long-held and superficial media assumptions about Biden and Clinton have been challenged this week by the revelation in Politico that the vice president leaked a story about son Beau’s deathbed wish himself. The Biden camp did not deny that a conversation may have taken place but did deny that any such theoretical conversation that might have happened was intended as a trial balloon that used paternal grief as a launching pad to a candidacy.
Here’s the quick catch-up, if you don’t know what I’m talking about. Back in August Maureen Dowd of the Times wrote this column about how Biden might run for president because it was Beau Biden’s dying wish that his father challenge Hillary Clinton. Dowd, appearing to paraphrase her source, wrote that Beau argued to his father that “the White House should not revert to the Clintons and that the country would be better off with Biden values.” She revealed nothing at the time about her sourcing. Everyone assumed it came from somewhere inside Biden world, but quite possibly without his knowledge, from someone who wanted to see him run.
But from Biden himself? To America’s most prominent Hillary-hating columnist? It has not seemed, to a number of observers of the situation, like a very “authentic” thing to do, for this man who gets so many points from the media for his authenticity.
I raise the episode not to assess Biden on the authenticity scale, but to argue that authenticity is overrated in the first place. I hate authenticity. Authenticity sucks. It’s a substitute for critical thought and actual argument, and the political media harp far too much on it.
Here is my theory about why they do. Political reporters (not columnists) feel the need to be objective, and of course properly so. They’re not supposed to be seen as taking sides. As such, they have to refrain from passing judgments on candidates’ ideological positions. To do that—to decide that Bernie Sanders’s stance on monetary policy is better than Marco Rubio’s—would constitute bias. And that’s the biggest no-no you can commit in the straight-news reporter game.
Yet, reporters are human beings (mostly!), and human beings have a natural need and urge to pass judgments—to make some kind of moral order out of the chaos the swirls around us. And since they can’t do it on the basis of ideology, then have to do it on the basis of something else. And that something else is sincerity. So for the political reporter it doesn’t matter so much what so-and-so believes. What matters is that he believes it, and conveys that he believes it, with sincerity.
I can’t tell you the number of straight-news reporters who’ve said to me over the years something like: Yes, OK, Ted Cruz or Lindsey Graham or whoever may be a little out there, but you know what? At least he really means it. What you see with him is what you get. To which I would rejoin, well, that’s fine, but so what; all that means to me is that when he starts World War III or resegregates our school system via his court appointments or gives the 1 percent another whopping-big tax cut, he’ll be doing so sincerely. But this (as I knew going in) was always a loser of an argument to an objective reporter, because they divorce themselves emotionally from the whole idea of outcomes.
And this is how political journalists end up assessing politicians with such a preponderant emphasis on their authenticity. They aren’t allowed to make subjective ideological judgments, so they make them on the basis of personality. It’s why they dwell excessively on matters like explaining to you which candidate you’d rather have a beer with. That was one great scam, by the way, back in 2000—persuading the American public that they’d all rather have a beer with the candidate (Dubya) who didn’t drink beer!
So. Back to Biden and Clinton. I have eyes and ears and I can readily see why Biden comes across as more authentic. Of course a lot of this has to do with gender, because the gestures and habits that create the impression of authenticity—the glad-hand, the backslap, the knowing wink—are gestures that code male. But not all of it has to do with gender. There is no doubt that Clinton is a bit stiff in public and is stand-off-ish with journalists, and of course we did just see an example of her reversing field on a major issue (the TPP).
She also completely and utterly lacks the Defuse Gene—the ability to make a budding scandal melt away with a quip that carries just the right balance of self-deprecation (i.e., acceptance of some responsibility for the mess) and needed perspective-keeping (i.e., what I’m accused of here isn’t so awful in the grand scheme of things). Instead she seems always to have had the Detonate Gene—her handling of these things has almost always made them worse.
But I don’t care whether she’s authentic. In fact, I don’t care whether any of them is authentic. I just care what they do. I’d much rather have a president who inauthentically raises the minimum wage and passes paid family leave than one who authentically eliminates the federal minimum wage and does what the Chamber of Commerce tells him to do on all such matters.
Now I recognize that I’m an extreme case. But I do think—and let’s end on this quasi-hopeful note—that the American people are somewhere in between the two extremes of me on the one hand and objective reporters on the other. Americans care about authenticity, but not as much as reporters do, and not nearly as much as reporters think they do. And they do care about positions.
They care a lot about positions, actually. No, they’re not sitting there combing through issue books and thinking about what the optimal payroll tax formula might be. But the voting public—the nonvoting portion of the public is another matter—has a pretty decent sense of what parties and candidates stand for. And these things still matter to most people, and it’s my job—and yours if you’re with me—to make them matter more. The cult of authenticity must be smashed.