March 6, 2000
Whatever else the presidential candidacy of John McCain may or may not accomplish, it has already been responsible for one notable development. In the way he has presented himself, and in his rhetoric, McCain has brought a significant ideal back into political discourse that had more or less gone into retirement--or perhaps only on a well-earned vacation--in the last few years. That ideal is authenticity.
As Mark Steyn recently observed in these pages, the feeling that McCain possesses or embodies this quality is what mainly accounts for the love affair the liberal media have been having with a candidate who, given his consistently conservative record on abortion, gun control, and the gay-rights movement, would normally be anathema to them. Or, to borrow Steyn's more pungent characterization of their normal attitude: "You gotta be nuts to believe this stuff." Thus far, however, McCain has not only been awarded a free pass by the liberal journalists covering and commenting on him; he has managed to make them even fonder of him by being "nuts." For that, too, is taken to be an element of his authenticity.
It is easy enough to explain why authenticity should have become so appealing in this presidential season. One need only mention the name of Bill Clinton--the man of shameless lies and of veritably surrealistic manipulations of language in the service of those lies--to understand how a hunger should have built up for a politician who is what he seems and seems what he is and says what he means and means what he says (even when what he says is either ill informed or patently wrong).
If, moreover, we sketch into the background against which McCain has emerged the figure of Al Gore--whose immortal phrase "no controlling legal authority" was topped only by Clinton's putative problem in defining the word "is"--the attractions of a straightforward, straight-talking candidate stand out in even sharper relief.
Nor is it only in contrast with the Democrats that McCain has come to look good. He has apparently also won the hearts even of many Republicans who (correctly) think that his positions on campaign-finance reform and the tobacco industry and taxes are as "nuts" as his record in the Senate strikes the liberals.
Again, it is easy enough to see why. I have never met George W. Bush, but watching him on television and listening to him deliver a scripted speech in the flesh, I have formed the impression that, like most politicians these days, he is a synthetic creature created by focus groups. People who know him and whom I trust tell me that this is flat-out mistaken. Nevertheless the sense remains that--in the only really great words Gertrude Stein ever wrote--"there's no there there." Here, too, McCain presents a dramatically different picture.
I know that he does because he has had this effect on me. The one time I met him was at a small breakfast meeting held long before his campaign took off and long before he became the darling of the media. I thought that his line on campaign-finance reform and the tobacco industry was nonsense, but somehow--even to a notorious ideologue like me--this seemed not to matter in comparison with something unfamiliar about him that I at first found it hard to put my finger on. And then, as I continued watching him, it came to me: There was a real person sitting in that chair. So refreshing did I find this that I was willing to overlook the substance of much of what he was saying. It soon became clear that I was not alone in responding to him in this way.
McCain has taken to comparing his efforts to reach out to Democrats and independents--a strategy forced on him by the lock that Bush evidently already had on the Republican vote going into the race--with what Ronald Reagan did in 1979-80 against Jimmy Carter. Yet a more relevant precedent would be Jimmy Carter's own campaign four years earlier against Gerald Ford, whom Carter implicitly treated as a stand-in for Nixon.
With Nixon as the ghostly reference point, Carter vowed that he would never lie to the American people; and now, with Clinton and Gore right smack out there in plain view playing the same role that Nixon did, McCain is making exactly the same promise and planting it at the center of his own campaign. And as Carter relied on his religious faith to lend credence to his vow of truthfulness, McCain is now leaning on his reputation for authenticity to back up his own claim that he will always tell the truth.
To be sure, it was not Jimmy Carter who first discovered the uses of authenticity in political campaigns. Even our greatest presidents have plucked the strings that John McCain is now strumming. Lincoln was "Honest Abe," and George Washington, in a legend that achieved such widespread currency that it might as well have been true, was supposedly so incapable of telling a lie that he confessed to cutting down the cherry tree. Straight talk, bluntness, and plainspokenness, as the outward and manifest signs of authenticity, have also made periodic appearances in American presidential campaigns from "Old Hickory" to Harry Truman.
Nor ought we to be surprised by this. For as the late literary critic Lionel Trilling demonstrated, the prestige of the idea of authenticity (like that of its milder and less demanding cousin, sincerity) has deep roots in our culture. One example of many that Trilling cites is from the parting speech Polonius makes to his son in Hamlet: "This above all: to thine own self be true,/And it must follow, as the night the day,/Thou canst not then be false to any man." And in the American context, Trilling points to three major examples. There was Nathaniel Hawthorne's exclamation: "Be true! Be true! Show freely to the world, if not your worst, yet some trait whereby the worst may be inferred." Then there was Ralph Waldo Emerson's "vivacious admiration" (as Trilling calls it) for the sincerity that he saw as the defining characteristic of the English. Finally there was Henry James's obverse admiration of the Americans as a wholly sincere people.
Though he took note of the virtual reverence accorded authenticity at the time he was writing (1971), Trilling did not linger long upon it. But he incisively observed that the word had become "part of the moral slang of our day." So indeed it had. In 1971, and throughout the rest of the decade, the spirit of the '60s was still very much alive. As David Frum brilliantly argues in his new book, How We Got Here, that spirit was spreading (or, as I would put it, metastasizing) through all classes of American society.
I myself well remember what the cult of authenticity involved. Its most popular slogan was "Let it all hang out." This represented an injunction not only to eschew reticence about one's private self but also to express one's opinions and ideas freely, no matter how offensive they might be to those being addressed or standing within earshot.
The main arena was sex. But the injunction extended to any repudiation of, or alternative to, the middle-class morals or manners that were considered--as they had been among intellectuals and artists for well over a century by then--a pestilential breeding ground of pretense and hypocrisy. Socrates said that the unexamined life was not worth living. But to the apostles of authenticity, it was the socially conditioned life that was not worth living. The authentic was identified with the "natural" state of things, uncontaminated (at least as far as possible) by social influences.
Thus, anything grown was more authentic than anything manufactured; and anything wild was more authentic than anything cultivated. Thus, ghetto blacks, especially if they were thugs and criminals, were more authentically black than those who lived respectable lives. And thus--in perhaps the most outlandish expression of this ethos, espoused by psychiatrists like R. D. Laing, poets like Allen Ginsberg, and novelists like Ken Kesey--schizophrenics and other sufferers from mental disease were more authentic human beings than those who had purchased a reputation for normality by conforming to the standards of a society that was itself truly insane.
Obviously, no such extreme positions could be nakedly imported into the realm of electoral politics, where they would alienate and antagonize the many millions of voters who had not yet seen the light. Which is why the tyrannical demands of authenticity were translated in the political world into the relatively bland form of Jimmy Carter's self-proclaimed devotion to the truth.
In due course, however, the lengths to which the ideal of authenticity went provoked a backlash in realms other than the political. Trilling's book, Sincerity and Authenticity, was itself a sign of this new turn. For in addition to illuminating the dark underside of the ideal, Trilling resurrected a counter-tradition that was at least as solidly rooted in the culture--even the high culture--as the ideals of sincerity and authenticity. Emerson, he tells us, may have venerated the sincerity of the English, but this did not prevent him from writing in his journal that "There is no deeper dissembler than the sincerest man." Trilling also quotes Oscar Wilde's aphorism that "The first duty in life is to be as artificial as possible." To this he adds a list of literary artists and philosophers (including W. B. Yeats and Friedrich Nietzsche) who believed, along with Emerson, that "many men can write better in a mask than for themselves." Nothing could be further than this from the ethos of letting it all hang out.
It would be going much too far to claim that the tide was turned by Trilling's book. Certainly that book was the locus classicus of the challenge to the ideal of authenticity in the upper reaches of our culture, and as such, it must have had a trickle-down effect. Still, it was not widely enough read to have directly influenced the changed attitudes toward the pursuit of authenticity that I for one could sense forming as the 1970s marched on. By the end of the decade, for instance, a quiet recoil from the mindset that venerated authenticity could be detected in the almost complete disappearance of the idea that insanity represented a more realistic response to contemporary reality than normality.
So, too, the kind of in-your-face self-display of an Abbie Hoffman or a Jerry Rubin that had once been held up as a moral model came to seem embarrassing to many who had formerly regarded it as a sign of superior authenticity. Suddenly, "cool" was in and letting it all hang out was out. True, where race and ethnicity were concerned, the cult of authenticity maintained a firmer grip than elsewhere. But even there it no longer had the power to silence contending points of view or criticisms of its principal dogmas.
In politics, the new era was dominated by Ronald Reagan. Now, Reagan was a man who most assuredly did not hesitate to speak his mind bluntly and forthrightly, as when he described the Soviet Union as an evil empire. But he was at the same time a very private person whose affability was itself a kind of "mask" that kept his inner life hidden from view--so effectively that his officially appointed biographer, Edmund Morris, was driven nearly crazy in trying to penetrate it. With Reagan the ideal of authenticity, like so many elements of the counterculture he loathed, dropped out of sight in the political realm.
Nor, despite superficial appearances to the contrary, did it stage a comeback with the self-styled "comeback kid" Bill Clinton. Clinton did indeed make every effort to act as though he were a communicant in the church of authenticity, pretending (through the ostentatious biting of his lower lip, the willingness to talk about the type of underwear he favored, and so on) to the candor and the openness of the let-it-all-hang-out style. But the habitual transparent lying overrode the lip-biting and altogether disqualified him from membership in the cult.
The same thing happened to Al Gore. In his speeches at the Democratic national conventions, the nauseating exploitations of his son's accident and of his sister's death from lung cancer were in effect an application for admission into the cult. Yet Gore too was disqualified when he was exposed as a liar about his past relations with the tobacco companies that had supposedly killed his sister; and many more such lies would come to light as the years wore on.
Hence the true comeback in American politics of authenticity to the exalted status of a quality so admirable that it could trump serious differences over serious issues remained for someone else to bring about--and the someone else turned out to be John McCain.
But as a result of that accomplishment, a hard question now arises, and it is this: Does authenticity deserve the great prestige it has once again acquired?
My answer has to be a complicated one. For all that I have said against some of the forms the pursuit of authenticity has taken in recent years, and for all that I could say in favor of the competing tradition that emphasizes not self-expression but self-transcendence in the doing of one's duty as the road to personal fulfillment, I have to concede that, at its best, authenticity as a driving force of the moral life still has much to commend it.
On the other hand, political leaders, especially at the highest levels, simply cannot perform their duty under the aegis of this ideal. There are times when in the national interest they are required to mislead or baldly lie to the public (I am not thinking--need I add?--about sending for the Monicas but about sending out the Marines). Even short of this, it is inconceivable that any president could get through so much as a single day without resorting to deviousness in managing his supporters and to cunning in pursuing his objectives. (Even the greatest of our presidents, "Honest Abe," was not so honest about his intentions with regard to slavery, to cite only the most consequential of his wily political maneuvers.) The simple fact is that what constitutes a vice in private life is subject to transformation into virtue by the alchemy of high office; and conversely, private virtue can be disabling or downright dangerous in the political realm.
Herein lies the paradox of a claim like the one Carter advanced that he would never lie to the American people, and that McCain has now echoed. As a moment's reflection reveals, it is almost impossible for private individuals to make good on such a claim among themselves. But for any president to do so is absolutely impossible. Which means that it is itself a lie.
The sanctimonious Carter gave every indication of being a big enough fool not to know this, and was therefore in all probability lying to himself as well as to the voters. There is no trace of sanctimoniousness in McCain, and I very much doubt that he is a fool at all, let alone one in Carter's league. My guess is that his promise not to lie is a tactic in the overall strategy he stumbled into of playing to the old American lust for authenticity.
The upshot is that, unless he has by now fallen for his own propaganda (which I hope is not the case because, in spite of my better political judgment, I still cannot help liking him, and I am still awestruck by the honor of his behavior as a prisoner of war in Vietnam), the lie embedded in the driving motif of his campaign is directed only at the electorate and not at himself. Either way, however, the paradox embedded in his Carteresque promise has gone unnoticed by McCain's friends and foes alike.
Meanwhile, no matter what the final outcome of his candidacy should be, it has already aroused the sleeping giant of a tradition that, take it for all in all, has done more harm than good in its long march through our politics and our culture.