Authentic? Never Mind

Published on
by
The New York Times

Authentic? Never Mind

by
Paul Krugman

Rich liberals who claim they'll help America's less fortunate are phonies.

Let me give you one example — a Democrat who said he'd work on behalf of workers and the poor. He even said he'd take on Big Business. But the truth is that while he was saying those things, he was living in a big house and had a pretty lavish summer home too. His favorite recreation, sailing, was incredibly elitist. And he didn't talk like a regular guy.

Clearly, this politician wasn't authentic. His name? Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Luckily, that's not how the political game was played 70 years ago. F.D.R. wasn't accused of being a phony; he was accused of being a "traitor to his class." But today, it seems, politics is all about seeming authentic. A recent Associated Press analysis of the political scene asked: "Can you fake authenticity? Probably not, but it might be worth a try."

What does authenticity mean? Supposedly it means not pretending to be who you aren't. But that definition doesn't seem to fit the way the term is actually used in political reporting.

For example, the case of F.D.R. shows that there's nothing inauthentic, in the normal sense of the word, about calling for higher taxes on the rich while being rich yourself. If anything, it's to your credit if you advocate policies that will hurt your own financial position. But the news media seem to find it deeply disturbing that John Edwards talks about fighting poverty while living in a big house.

On the other hand, consider the case of Fred Thompson. He spent 18 years working as a highly paid lobbyist, wore well-tailored suits and drove a black Lincoln Continental. When he ran for the Senate, however, his campaign reinvented him as a good old boy: it leased a used red pickup truck for him to drive, dressed up in jeans and a work shirt, with a can of Red Man chewing tobacco on the front seat.

But Mr. Thompson's strength, says Lanny Davis in The Hill, is that he's "authentic."

Oh, and as a candidate George W. Bush was praised as being more authentic than Al Gore. As late as November 2005, MSNBC's chief political correspondent declared that Mr. Bush's authenticity was his remaining source of strength. But now The A.P. says that Mr. Bush's lack of credibility is the reason his would-be successors need to seem, yes, authentic.

Talk of authenticity, it seems, lets commentators and journalists put down politicians they don't like or praise politicians they like, with no relationship to what the politicians actually say or do.

Here's a suggestion: Why not evaluate candidates' policy proposals, rather than their authenticity? And if there are reasons to doubt a candidate's sincerity, spell them out.

For example, Hillary Clinton's credibility as a friend of labor is called into question, not by her biography or life style, but by the fact that, as The Nation recently reported, her chief strategist — a man Al Gore fired in 2000 because he didn't trust him — heads a public relations company that helps corporations fight union organizing drives.

And where do you start with Rudy Giuliani? We keep being told that he has credibility on national security, because he seemed so reassuring on 9/11. (Some firefighters have condemned his actual performance that day, saying that rescue efforts were uncoordinated and that firemen died because he provided them with faulty radios. "All he did was give information on the TV," said a deputy fire chief whose son died at the World Trade Center. "He did nothing." And the nation's largest firefighters' union has condemned his handling of recovery efforts in the weeks following 9/11.)

But he's spent the years since then cashing in on terrorism, and his decisions about Giuliani Partners' personnel and clients raise real questions about his seriousness. His partners, as The Washington Post pointed out, included "a former police commissioner later convicted of corruption, a former F.B.I. executive who admitted taking artifacts from ground zero and a former Roman Catholic priest accused of covering up sexual abuse in the church."

The point is that questions about a candidate shouldn't be whether he or she is "authentic." They should be about motives: whose interests would the candidate serve if elected? And think how much better shape the nation would be in if enough people had asked that question seven years ago.

Paul Krugman is Professor of Economics at Princeton University and a regular New York Times columnist. His most recent book is The Great Unraveling: Losing Our Way in the New Century.

© 2007 The New York Times

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