Is there anyone left in the United States who has no opinion about the personalities of the presidential candidates? And through what curious metrics do we arrive at these opinions?
Donald Trump, whether shouting off a teleprompter or more unscripted (a mode Stephen Colbert has described as “angry creamsicle”) is someone we feel we know all too well. All personality, no filter. When public sentiment began to turn against him recently, his family urged him to take it down a notch. But Trump is essentially unveil-able. For every three days that he manages to cover up what he really thinks, there comes a fourth, when he reverts to his customary full-frontal nudity. The only thing missing in our knowledge of Trump is an MRI of his brain (and a tax return).
The favorite charge against Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, is her “inauthenticity.” At the Democratic National Convention, Chelsea Clinton had to inform us that her mother can be quite funny in real life. Apparently voters are still trying to get a grip on “the real Hillary,” despite 18 months of relentless media exposure.
But this is how long-tail fame works: first it illuminates, then, paradoxically, it obscures. Strange as it may sound to compare the former First Lady to the star of Caddyshack, I call this the Bill Murray Effect.
Early in his career, somewhere between playing Nick the Lounge Singer on Saturday Night Live and co-starring in the first Ghostbusters, Bill Murray developed a playful, deadpan persona that he was willing to share with his fans. (This phenomenon is the subject of a new semi-serious book by Gavin Edwards, called The Tao of Bill Murray.) We feel as if we know “the real” Bill Murray because his performances are so double-edged. There’s the scripted character—the glum executive in Rushmore, for instance—and then there’s the off-camera, prankish, kickball-playing, karaoke-singing person, who shines through the role and seems to wink at us. The guy who’s made an art of photo-bombing total strangers. Murray has learned how to conspire with his audience in creating both his onscreen and offscreen characters. And thus the private Bill Murray remains safely hidden.
Keith Richards is another example of successful long-tail fame—and so, in her own regal way, is Queen Elizabeth II. We feel curiously chummy towards these public figures, like eccentric aunts or uncles who turned up for a family reunion and then moved into the spare room down the hall. (In fact, Hillary could do worse than to acquire four or five corgis, and a paisley headscarf tied over the hair along with a pair of riding boots could make her virtually unhate-able. If only she could manage to combine the best features of Queen Elizabeth II with Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, no one could stop her.)
Hillary has, in fact, played starring roles in a few clunky scripts of her own. We’ve watched her walk across the lawn between her husband and daughter in the lee of the Lewinsky scandal, and we’ve spied on her dancing in a bathing suit with Bill. The public has shared these painfully intimate moments with her, along with her evolution as a politician whose hawkish stance on the Iraq war co-exists with an unwavering commitment to women’s reproductive rights. She has weathered the pitiless scrutiny and petty criticism that all women in the public eye face. We’ve gone over Hillary with a fine-tooth comb, if not a garden rake—and yet, in crucial ways she remains elusive.
It was only in standing up to Trump during the past year that Hillary came into sharper focus. The flashes of warmth and joy we saw when she clinched the Democratic Primary were a reminder of how rarely we’ve seen her that open. But in this deeply strange campaign, “inauthenticity” could turn out to be a winning quality in a presidential candidate.
You can accuse Trump of many things, but he is dependably, scarily, authentically himself. This made for irresistible train-wreck TV and it has earned him a following among working-class, middle-aged white male voters in particular. The lies, the fear-mongering, the empty patriarchal promises of blanket “safety”—such details don’t matter to his supporters. They love and trust the guy.
In contrast, we’re never going to fall in love with Hillary. Our relationship with her is not the sort that first idealizes and then discards. She is not our savior or our shining star, she’s just part of our big dysfunctional family, the aunt with the loud laugh whose suits are hanging in the room down the hall.
But if Hillary wins, she will be scrutinized as never before. Will her response be to show less of herself, or more?
I would advise her to take a page from the Bill Murray playbook. Learn to take those public risks, while refining your protective coloring. Kickball isn’t necessary, but what’s wrong with a little photo-bombing? It’s been working so far for Canada’s Justin Trudeau.
And remember that in a democracy like ours, fame is a collaboration, not a job description. One of the problems with Trump as potential president is that he leaves nothing to the public’s imagination. Our sense that the Democratic candidate has yet to unmask herself, in contrast to her opponent’s compulsive exhibitionism, may well work in her favor as she goes about convincing us that there’s one more empty room that Hillary Clinton deserves to occupy—the Oval Office.
Marni Jackson has won numerous National Magazine Awards for her journalism, humor, and social commentary. Her non-fiction books have challenged popular thinking on subjects as diverse as the culture of motherhood and the treatment of pain. She has published in Rolling Stone, London Sunday Times, and every major Canadian magazine. Don’t I Know You?, published last month, is her first work of fiction.