The corps’ “authenticity” games: Brendan Nyhan got his start in the old Spinsanity days.
Today, Nyhan is an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth. As a sign of total respect, we’ll omit his honorific in the remarks which follow.
In a recent post for the New York Times, Nyhan examines the concept of “authenticity” as it’s applied to White House candidates by the mainstream press corps. And good God, is that concept ever applied to candidates!
Today, we’re constantly told that Candidate Clinton isn’t “authentic,” but the highly subjective and nebulous concept has been around a long time.
The highly nebulous concept became journalistically de rigueur during Campaign 2000. In December 1999, USA Today’s Walter Shapiro even gave “authenticity” his Silver Wordy award for the year:
SHAPIRO (12/22/99): Comfortable with Himself and Authenticity: In a few short months, these have become everyone’s favorite buzzwords to describe the come-from-behind appeal of Bill Bradley and John McCain. Compared with the scripted George W. Bush and the synthetic Gore (see “Alpha Male”), these two different-drummer candidates seem spontaneous, original and, yes, comfortable with themselves.Just for the record, the first phrase was actually “comfortable in his own skin.” For the record, these laudatory descriptions were being applied to Candidate Bush in many quarters too.
The phrases are so cliché-ridden and inauthentic it’s difficult to figure out who first applied them to the dynamic duo of Bradley and McCain...
(Earlier in the same column, Shapiro had awarded his “Bronze Wordy” for the year to the phrase “alpha male,” a term which was being used all the over the press to denigrate the inauthentic Candidate Gore.)
Concerning his Silver Wordy award, Shapiro was plainly right is several major respects. By the fall of 1999, those subjective assessments were everywhere as the mainstream press corps pretended to assess the four major candidates.
In our view, he was also right in his suggestion that the use of these subjective assessments related to a deep “inauthenticity” within the press corps itself. As they pretended to cover the race, the phoniest people on the face of the earth were telling us which candidates were “authentic!”
(General answer, widely expressed: Everyone but Gore!)
In his post for the New York Times, Nyhan picks up at this point. He notes that Candidate Clinton is the hopeful who’s currently being assailed for her lack of “authenticity.” He then suggests that pundits should stop assessing candidates by this highly subjective and nebulous metric.
He suggests that reporters can’t tell who is and isn’t “authentic.” He doesn’t note how phony it typically is when reporters pretend to make this assessment.
That said, we think Nyhan’s overall assessment falls a bit short of the mark. In the following passage, he makes a daring but worthwhile suggestion about non-Candidate Biden. He then offers a disappointing assessment of the authenticity narrative which prevailed in Campaign 2000:
NYHAN (10/1/15): [W]e shouldn’t assume that politicians who appear to be sincere are actually more genuine or revealing of their true selves. Like the stars you see telling scripted anecdotes on talk shows, they’re often just skilled at performing their public role. As the political scientist Richard Skinner has noted, the personas of popular presidents such as George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy were artificial constructions.Can Brendan Nyhan say that? In that second paragraph, he almost seems to semi-suggest that non-Candidate Biden is perhaps and possibly being almost a tiny bit phony in his current posture.
Even Joe Biden, the outgoing and expressive vice president who is widely seen as a more “authentic” alternative to Mrs. Clinton, has publicly cited his family’s genuine grieving over his son’s death as a reason not to enter the Democratic race while privately continuing to lay the groundwork for a possible run.
Recent examples illustrate how inconsistently and arbitrarily the labels of authenticity and inauthenticity are applied to candidates. Scott Walker changed a number of positions after entering the G.O.P. presidential race but generally wasn’t covered as a phony, while Mr. Romney was. Jeb Bush has stuck to some unpopular stances, but isn’t covered as a “maverick” like John McCain. The difference may be their performance skills, not their positions.
Similarly, George W. Bush and Al Gore were both born into powerful political families, but were perceived very differently. Mr. Bush successfully reinvented himself as a down-home Texas ranch owner despite being the son of a president with elite New England roots, while Mr. Gore was widely mocked as a phony who grew up amid wealth and power in Washington, especially when he invoked his childhood work on his family’s Tennessee farm. Again, one simple explanation for the disparate treatment they received is that Mr. Bush was a better political performer.
We’ll return to that suggestion below. First, let’s consider this explanation for the fact that Candidate Gore was widely assailed as a phony while Candidate Bush was not:
“One simple explanation for the disparate treatment they received is that Mr. Bush was a better political performer.”
You’ll note that Nyhan doesn’t claim that this explanation is complete or correct. He merely says that this explanation would be “simple.”
We’ll move from simple to “simple-minded.” We’ll also say that explanation is almost surely incorrect.
Was Candidate Gore perceived as a phony by the mainstream press corps? We don’t know, but he was plainly portrayed that way—and Candidate Bush, the plain-spoken Texan, rather plainly was not.
Did this obvious “disparate treatment” result from Bush’s performance skills? Crackers, please! Here’s the most obvious reason for the disparate treatment:
This was a prevailing press corps script which ran all through Campaign 2000! The assertion that Gore was “inauthentic” was a mandated narrative throughout that long campaign. Pundits clung to that narrative as drowning rats cling to floating bodies.
Everything that happened in Campaign 2000 was hammered into that mandated framework. Consider the candidates’ shoes.
Sometimes, Candidate Gore wore regular shoes. Sometimes he wore boots.
The same was true of Candidate Bush. Sometimes, he wore regular shoes. Sometimes he wore boots.
Here’s the difference:
When Candidate Gore wore boots, he was brutally assailed as a phony. For a punishing background report, see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/4/03.
The Nexis record clearly shows that Gore had worn boots all through his public career. Incomparably, we've detailed this fact in the past.
Gore had worn boots all through his career; Washington journalists knew that. But everyone from the disgraceful Cokie Roberts on down now took turns insisting that he had just started wearing boots in an attempt to reinvent himself as a down-home man of the people.
Some news orgs even fought about a related issue—how high was the candidate hemming his pants in order to showcase his boots? The Los Angeles Times said he was hemming his pants three inches too high. Time magazine said it was "at least six."
That's what happened when one of the candidates wore both shoes and boots. What happened when the other candidate did the same thing?
In the New York Times, Bruni happened! As the campaign began taking shape, this was the start of a lengthy, fawning profile of the glorious candidate:
BRUNI (9/14/99): When Gov. George W. Bush of Texas first hit the Presidential campaign trail in June, he wore monogrammed cowboy boots, the perfect accessory for his folksy affability and casual self-assurance.No one suggested that Candidate Bush was revealing himself as a phony through his shifting footwear. Moronic assessments of that type were reserved for Candidate Gore.
But when he visited New Hampshire early last week, he was shod in a pair of conservative, shiny black loafers that seemed to reflect more than the pants cuffs above them. They suggested an impulse by Mr. Bush to put at least a bit of a damper on his brash irreverence, which has earned him affection but is a less certain invitation for respect.
As Mr. Bush presses forward with his almost preposterously charmed quest for the Republican Presidential nomination, he has plenty of confidence, evident in his easy swagger...
This disparate treatment was not a result of performance skill. This was the outcome of script.
In the past week, Gore made a public appearance in which he discussed climate and sustainability issues. Below, we’ll link you to a photograph where you can observe his footwear, sixteen years after Cokie and them savaged him as a big phony.
First, let’s relate the use of the nebulous concept “authenticity” to the scripting of the current White House campaign.
In that scripting, non-Candidate Biden is now the world’s most authentic known person, while Candidate Clinton’s a phony. This places Biden in the fully favored position the press corps bestowed on McCain and Bradley, their most favored saints, in the fall of 1999.
In the passage we’ve posted above, Nyhan almost seems to semi-suggest that non-Candidate Biden is perhaps and possibly being almost a tiny bit phony in his current posture. Full disclosure:
As Biden continues exploiting the death of his son, that unflattering assessment has frequently crossed our minds too!
That said, the authenticity of non-Candidate Biden is now deeply embedded in the press corps’ controlling script. As it was with the sainted Candidate McCain, so now with the sainted non-Candidate Biden—everything he says and does just proves how authentic he is.
What does Deep Narrative look like? It appears atop page A4 in this morning’s hard-copy Washington Post.
In our hard-copy Post, page A4 is designated as the CAMPAIGN 2016 page. Beneath that heading, we see a rather large photo of non-Candidate Biden, apparently deep in prayer.
(As we type, a different photo appears on-line.)
The large photo of Biden in prayer spreads across four columns. It tells us how completely sincere he is.
So does the following standard account, part of the latest lengthy report about the fact that there’s nothing to report:
KANE AND BALZ (10/3/15): At times, Biden sounds far from ready. But then there are moments like Thursday night, when Biden sprinkled his remarks to a Manhattan crowd with comments that sounded like someone with a keen interest in running.(We never do this, but we'll do it today, so obvious is our conclusion. In that text, Biden is allowed to take a pot shot at Candidate Sanders. If Clinton did that, every pundit would know what to say: It's Just Like The Clintons to do that!)
He made a reference to the many miles he has traveled as vice president—now clocking in at more than Clinton did as secretary of state. He also drew an ideological contrast with Sanders, who has generated enthusiasm on the left with his populist economic agenda.
"I'm not Bernie Sanders," Biden said at the Concordia Summit. "He's a great guy, he really is. But I'm not a populist; I'm a realist."
When Biden talks like that, it feeds speculation that he is getting ready to join the race, and there is plenty of activity around him to suggest that he is overseeing a campaign in the making.
And yet, there is a parallel universe of greater significance, the single factor that no one can overcome, which is that Biden’s family is still grieving the loss of Biden’s son Beau, who died of brain cancer four months ago at age 46. The vice president has repeatedly said that no decision about running for president can be made until his family is ready to commit, even if it means that the moment passes.
"It's just not quite there yet, and it might not get there in time to make it feasible to run and succeed because there are certain windows that will close. If that's it, that's it. It's not like I can rush it," Biden said in an interview with America, a leading Jesuit news site, just before Pope Francis arrived in Washington last week.
By his own admission—made to the Jesuits, no less—Biden is fully authentic. He’s doing the fully selfless thing. It involves a universe of greater significance, the need of his family to grieve.
That may be an accurate portrait, of course. After all, Biden made this selfless admission just before meeting Pope Francis! It’s also possible that Biden has never intended to enter the race unless Candidate Clinton implodes behind the email mess, and that he keeps hiding behind the death of his son as he waits to see if that happens.
To his credit, Nyhan suggested some such possibility in the passage we posted; we’ve seen no one else break the embargo and do so. That said, he chose his words with so much care that his meaning is barely perceptible. Perhaps he’s been influenced by the wrong crowd down at the faculty club!
Has Biden been playing a game involving the death of his son? We don’t have any way of knowing, but the thought has often crossed our mind that he may be behaving badly.
Nyhan excepted, no such thought will ever appear anywhere in the press corps! They’re working from their latest official group script, and everyone is reciting.
In this year’s script, Biden is prayerful and authentic; Clinton is the phony. Sixteen years ago, the same “disparate treatment” was dumped on the head of Candidate Gore as the world’s biggest collection of phonies obsessively followed their scripts.
They did it because the corps had agreed on a mandated narrative, not because of Bush’s vast skills. They were able to do it because the cowering career liberal world sat back and let it happen, or even played an active part in the war.
One final note about the inauthentic Candidate Gore’s utterly phony choice of shoes, which showed Cokie and the rest of guild how inauthentic he was.
On Thursday, Gore was interviewed by James Fallows at the Washington Ideas Forum. A large color photograph can be seen here.
Go ahead! Look at the shoes!
Cokie and the rest of the children insisted that Candidate Gore was a phony. They could see how phony he was. Just look at those cowboy boots!
People are dead all over the world because of the endless ways their promulgated their script. Today, Cokie continues to chortle and simper on network TV as she tells us that Candidate Clinton is the big phony this time.
The liberal world accepted this conduct in Campaign 2000. Weak and gullible as we are, we are currently planning to lap it up again.
Cokie and Steve not-in-boots: In the fall of 1999, the nation’s pundits took turns assailing Candidate Gore for his insincere footwear selection.
The phoniest people on the planet were taking turns killing the pig. On October 15, Cokie and her husband, Steve Roberts, did so in their syndicated column, which went all over the nation:
ROBERTS AND ROBERTS (10/15/99): Look at Al Gore, after almost 23 years in public life, suddenly searching for his “authentic” self and then finding it in cowboy boots and open-necked shirts.He shouldn’t be wearing those polo shirts either! They weren’t in his high school’s dress code!
Is this the same Al Gore who grew up in a fancy hotel in Washington, went to Harvard and now lives in the vice president’s mansion, a short walk from the elite prep school he attended? Somehow, we doubt that cowboy boots and polo shirts were part of the dress code at St. Alban’s.
People are dead all over the world because Cokie played this astonishing game—and because everyone else, from E. J. on down, politely stood by and watched. Can you believe that the person who wrote that column is still allowed on TV?
The same faux game is underway now. We’re going to buy it again.