The Candidates Play the Authenticity Game

Written by David Corn on . Posted in Breaking News, Posts.

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

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?

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:

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.