Solving Presidential ‘Authenticity Issues’

By Beacon Staff

Much has been written about the quality of ‘authenticity’ in presidential candidates – the ability of some politicians to convey a genuine sense of themselves to voters, and connect with people on a personal, emotional level. The logical side of us says to disregard such nonsense and critically evaluate the economic and foreign policies of the candidates, but that’s easier said than done. All of which brings us to the failure of Mitt Romney, and the steady but vaguely uninteresting march of Hillary Clinton.

I observed Mitt Romney’s speech to Montana Republicans at the state GOP convention in June, and participated in a press conference he gave after his remarks. He opened with the obligatory self-deprecating jokes, laid down a few obvious applause lines, and was finished speaking before most had finished their steak and eggs. Afterwards, several Republicans remarked at how impressed with Romney they were, but I never got the sense that he ignited a fire under anyone there. If anything, most Republicans simply seemed flattered that a presidential candidate had bothered to make the trip out to Helena.

This morning’s New York Times story evaluating where Romney’s campaign made missteps describes his strategists in 2006 grappling with his “authenticity issues,” and working up a PowerPoint presentation “which listed some of Mr. Romney’s vulnerabilities, including the perception of him as an ideological panderer, as well as his Mormonism and his inexperience in military affairs.”

How does one remedy “authenticity issues”? If I knew that I would be making money hand over fist as a consultant. But there is a difference between Romney, who always came across as more calculated than charismatic, and Hillary Clinton, who has struggled with showing the public what her friends and advisers say is the best part of herself.

I am from New York, and I can remember driving home from college in 2000 during Clinton’s run for the senate. Heading south from rural upstate New York, passing through small towns, every house with a poster had one for Clinton’s Republican candidate, Rick Lazio. Then, once I got within two hours of New York City, the signs changed to Hillary. I was among those who always felt slightly that she was a carpetbagger, and I never quite understood the passion she was able to evoke in so many.

I didn’t grasp the appeal of New York’s junior senator until I was covering the Montana Legislature. One afternoon, seeking an interview, I entered the office of Sen. Carol Williams, D-Missoula, and the first female Senate majority leader in the history of the state legislature. Williams was out, but her aide had a letter on her desk from Clinton to Williams, congratulating the Missoula senator on her achievement. The aide showed me the letter, which she was going to frame for Williams. It was typed, but the message was heartfelt and genuine. At the bottom, Clinton had written in large letters, “YEAH!” and signed her name.

I got a better sense of who Clinton is from that brief letter than I have in the hours of campaign speeches and interviews I have watched her do, and the hundreds of articles about her I have read. Now, Clinton is up against a Democratic opponent who is able to evoke that personal connection and passion in hundreds of thousands of people, and to do so effortlessly. And Romney retires from the race, in large part, because he was never able to master that connection. It probably shouldn’t come down to such things, but it does. And it does not appear to be a skill you can learn.