"Authenticity” has been all the rage in the Republican primary season, which bounced back and forth from one extreme to the other, with the field neatly split between the five or six people who were all too authentic, and one who wasn’t authentic enough. There was Mitt Romney, who was inauthentic as a politician and as a conservative, against six or so others whose authenticity was only too evident: Michele Bachmann, authentically provincial; Ron Paul, authentically cranky; Herman Cain, authentically ludicrous; Jon Huntsman, authentically condescending; Rick Perry, authentically unprepared; Rick Santorum, authentically preachy; and Newt Gingrich, authentically Newt. Except for Huntsman, whose first day was his best, and after that was authentically moribund (and Paul, who is a whole other story), each of the group flared up in succession, shone briefly, and then flamed out in the heat of the moment: All authentically not built to last. If you can fake sincerity, as they say, you’ve got it made, but authenticity may be a different matter, a double-edged sword that can wound the possessor. What is the right kind, and how can you get it? Let us look at these people, and see.
Mitt Romney has no fewer than three authenticity deficits: as a politician, as a conservative, and as what is known as a “regular guy,” three things a viable GOP candidate ought to be able to be. To start, he is inauthentic as a politician because it’s a second career for him: He is a businessman trying to play in a different ballgame, and finding his skills don’t convey. “Politics is [his] second language, and he . . . speaks it awkwardly,” said Michael Gerson. “His ploys are too obvious, his humor forced, his instincts unreliable.” He doesn’t take smoothly to small talk with strangers, alarms don’t go off in his head to warn that today’s phrase is tomorrow’s damaging sound bite, he can’t gauge the “feel” of an audience and provide an endearing response. He is the opposite of, say, Bill Clinton, described in Sally Bedell Smith’s biography as “capable of constant emotional scans of everyone in the room in real time while he was thinking,” and able to recognize, quantify, and respond to the emotional state of his listeners.
When Romney tries to engage, it is somehow off-putting: saying he likes to be able to fire people, saying his father once moved a factory out of a town that he was speaking in; telling a man who was out of work and who would be soon out of money that he too has been unemployed for some time. It would not have been hard to put off the renovation of his multimillion-dollar beach house in California (or cancel the car elevator that would be installed), but he went ahead anyhow, making an in-kind donation to Obama’s campaign. His primary wins, ground out the hard way with grit and endurance, were often drowned out the next morning by a faux pas made by himself or his aides. Authentic enough in his role as a really good businessman trying and failing to be a good politician, he may find his best bet is to argue the businessman type is just what we need at this time in the Oval Office, to avoid fiscal disaster.
Romney is also authentically not a conservative, at least in the eyes of the truest believers who make up his party’s base. The son of a moderate mid-’60s governor, he is suspect by lineage, and his behavior since he began running for office has given them small cause for cheer. The problem is that he combines a pragmatic approach toward governing with a marketer’s approach toward getting elected—giving the audience what he thinks it wants—on the theory that in order to do any good things in office, one has to be in it first. Running for the Senate in 1994 in blue Massachusetts (and successfully for governor of the state eight years later), he said he was pro-choice, pro-gay rights (but not pro-gay marriage), and was not aligned with the Reagan-Bush legacy. Running in 2007-2008 in the Republican primaries, he presented himself as the total conservative—pro-life, pro-business, anti-tax, pro-traditional marriage—against a field of men who in some ways were all viewed as heretics: John McCain, the perennial maverick, Mike Huckabee, the big government conservative, and Rudy Giuliani, the pro-choice, thrice-married mayor of Gotham. In 2012, Stuart Rothenberg noted that blocs of moderate primary voters who had gone for McCain in 2008 now voted for Romney, while Romney’s conservative voters of four years ago had left him for others, and took this as proof of Romney’s inauthenticity. In fact, it was likely a matter of contrasts: In 2008, a moderate voter might have preferred McCain to Romney, but found Romney acceptable, and then considered his 2012 rivals—Perry and Gingrich and Santorum—as beyond any possible pale.
Running a blue state between 2003 and 2007, Romney governed to the right of the campaign he had run, moved steadily in a pro-life direction, cut taxes and spending, and gave the state a more conservative government. Now he presents himself as an authentic pragmatic conservative, who sells himself as the market requires, who governs based on his business experience, who moved a blue state as far to the right as was humanly possible, and whose skills at financial management uniquely equip him to achieve the conservative goals of cutting back spending, reforming entitlements, and reviving a broken economy. This makes him an operational conservative, whose works bend the world in a rightward direction, but without the ideological grounding underneath. The question is, is this sufficient? The answer may be yes, and no.
Gradually, many conservatives came around to the view that a pragmatic conservative was the best they’d be able to get this season, and that it may not be all that bad. “Romney is instinctively not necessarily a political conservative, he’s instinctively a problem solver,” said Jim DeMint, who has semi-endorsed him. “Romney is temperamentally conservative, but not particularly ideological,” Gerson wrote. “He reserves his enthusiasm for quantitative analysis and organizational discipline. He seems to view the cultural and philosophic debates that drive others as distractions from the real task of governing—making systems work.”
Are there models for this? Yes, there once were: Back in the day, popular presidents such as Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy were the ultimate pragmatic centrists, not only indifferent to ideology but biased against it, regarding it as an emotional affliction of unstable and dubious minds. Romney, whom Michael Barone has described as a cultural product of the Eisenhower-JFK era, may also belong to their political model, one in which centrists were the plausible heads of the “right” and “left” parties, and the social issues and the wars that went with them had yet to emerge. In that age, battles were held more often within, and not between, parties, and though the two presidents differed greatly in style—as did Adlai E. Stevenson and Richard M. Nixon—there was little daylight between their ideas. Eisenhower and Kennedy did have a “core” (as does Romney), which is their unquestioned love of their country, but they paid little heed to party and ideology. An authentic businessman who pushed himself into the public arena, an authentic pragmatist from the ’50s and ’60s in a more polarized setting, Romney seems a little at odds both with his time and the more passionate wings of both parties. And this, with his luck, makes him seem like a stranger: He may be simply too good to be true.
Rich men abound, but Mitt Romney has had a level of luck seldom seen in our candidates for high office: Handsome and rich, with a stunning blonde wife and five presentable sons, from a famous, close, loving, and privileged family, he has been lucky and successful all his life. Did we mention rich? His problem on that front is not authenticity. As Gerson put it, “His problem is political. He talks about money as though engaged in a discussion with his stock broker. So $374,000 from paid speeches is ‘not very much.’ ” The stunning blonde wife drives “a couple of Cadillacs.” He doesn’t know much about NASCAR, but he has friends who own the cars. He proposed to Rick Perry a $10,000 bet. He’s far from the only rich man to run for president, yet he seems less at ease with his riches than did other wealthy candidates, and one can think of three reasons why: Unlike the Kennedy brothers and Roosevelt cousins, who lived on trust funds and went into public life in their twenties, he made his own money, and spent much of his life doing so. Unlike his father, who made cars, or the elder George Bush, who went drilling for oil, he was an investment banker who made money with money, which seems less substantial. And there may be a third reason, concerning a rare form of privilege that comes to few of all classes. Unlike the Roosevelts, Bushes, and Kennedys, he has had a life unmarred by most kinds of misfortune—an unruffled run of good luck.
The Roosevelts, Bushes, and Kennedys never knew what it was like to be one paycheck away from utter privation, but they were abundantly damaged by pain and bereavement and reminders that life is unfair. John Kennedy and the elder George Bush were chauffeured to private school in the depths of the Depression, but they also belonged to a war generation, joined the armed forces as soon as was possible, nearly drowned when their vehicles were sunk or shot down by the enemy, and saw friends, comrades, and relatives die. Franklin Roosevelt had polio, a famously terrible marriage, and long separations from the woman he loved. Theodore Roosevelt struggled with asthma, and at age 25 had been so shattered by the sudden and simultaneous deaths of his wife and his mother (the latter at 48 still a stunning young woman) that he fled to the West to hold on to his sanity. Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, and the elder George Bush buried very young children; and Kennedy was part of his family’s struggle to raise his retarded sister as normal, a struggle it finally lost. George W. Bush was a failure until he was 40, and almost became one of a long line of dynastic children, starting with the sons of John and John Quincy Adams, who were destroyed by depression and alcohol. John Kennedy had gone through such stress in his earlier years—repeated hospital stays, back pain, and adrenal gland failure; war, PT-109, and the deaths of his brother, sister, and brother-in-law—that he was a basket case by the time he reached 30, and took several years to regain his élan.
Kennedy, the grandson of a mayor and son of a millionaire and holder of high public office, campaigned in poor neighborhoods and talked of the war and his dead brother. His mother, who wore couture from the great houses of Paris, talked to other Gold Star Mothers from poor families about their dead sons. Romney has no similar point of entry into less privileged lives. He did not go to war, did not bury a spouse or a child, did not lose a close family member at a young age. He went from riches to riches and success to success, his life interrupted only by two lost elections—in 1994 and in the 2008 primaries—in which he didn’t disgrace himself, and set himself up for future campaigns. This is not life as even many rich people have known it, untouched by rejection or failure. The country may vote for a poor politician, it may even vote for a non-true-believer. Can it love someone too good to be true?
Maybe so. Dinged as he is by his luck and his money, Mitt is still with us, which is more than one can say for his rivals, who were much too authentic to last. Huntsman shot himself in both feet at the very beginning, choosing to insult and demean his own voters, thereby becoming the darling of anticonservatives, sitting for an adoring profile by a liberal writer that appeared in a magazine run by an Obama fundraiser, an intellectual journal called Vogue. For some of the rest, a few words would do it: Michele Bachmann did herself in via “government injection”; Herman Cain with “Ubeki-beki-bekistan” (and bimbo eruptions); Rick Perry with “oops.” Egocentric to a degree considered noteworthy even in politics, Newt Gingrich is authentically grandiose and eccentric, having compared himself over time to Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Henry Clay, Abraham Lincoln, Woodrow Wilson, and Sir William Wallace of Braveheart among many others, and also of course to Sir Winston S. Churchill, whose wilderness spells and troughs of misunderstood greatness he seems to think mirror his own. The next non-Mitt in line was Rick Santorum, authentically a moralizing scold, or, as Wes Pruden put it, “There’s a tiny priest living in Rick Santorum’s trim, toned body, struggling to get out.” From time to time, this priest emerged and managed to tell us that (a) Satan perverted our national culture; (b) as president he would address the moral evils inherent in family planning; (c) mainline Protestant churches were no longer Christian; and (d) John Kennedy’s speech in 1960 to the Protestant ministers put the nation “at risk” of moral destruction through the complete separation of church and state. There were more politic ways to refer to the assassinated president’s speech—such as, “With all due respect, I think he was mistaken”—but Santorum decided to be more authentic, saying on national television, “That makes me throw up.” Soon after this he lost his lead in Ohio, Illinois, and Wisconsin, and that spelled the end of his campaign.
As their campaigns fell apart, Santorum and Gingrich also emerged as authentic complainers, blaming their woes on the cosmic unfairness of having a better-funded opponent run ads using their own words against them, ignoring the fact that those words were out there to be used against them owing to nobody’s fault but their own.
The lesson in all of this? That authenticity isn’t always an unalloyed blessing. And that it may be better to be just a touch inauthentic than authentically something that people don’t want.
Noemie Emery is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and a columnist for the Washington Examiner.