Politics as theater: Can personal authenticity be manufactured?

The Colorado Statesman

On Debate Day the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government assembled a luncheon colloquy at the Brown Palace to discuss the dramatic dimensions of the modern presidency. With a panel that included Aaron Sorkin, the Academy and Emmy award winning screenwriter of The Social Network, Moneyball and The West Wing, this was a sizzling hot ticket event. Sorkin is not the diminutive, beetle-browed, horned-rim glasses wearing New Yorker I expected, but a large, strapping, sandy blonde hunk of manhood who looks like he was probably the captain of his high school lacrosse team in Westchester County. While he cautioned his audience that, “I don’t actually know anything about politics,” Sorkin is one of that handful of individuals I’ve met who apparently returned to the genetic buffet line for a second helping of opinions.

He was joined by the always funny, always entertaining Alan K. Simpson, former three-term Wyoming Senator, and current member of the Simpson-Bowles deficit busting dream team. Chuck Todd, the chief NBC White House correspondent, more than held his own with what proved the single most prescient prediction on the outcome of the evening’s main event. Todd observed that over the past 25-year history of televised presidential debates, the incumbent has routinely lost his first encounter. He attributed this to the Bell Jar nature of the White House where staff discussions about the boss ranges from, “…he’s the greatest President in American history to the possibility that he is merely wonderful.” After four years, where the extent of challenges to his opinions have been limited to the suggestion that he might reach deeper for an even better idea, the President is knocked off balance by a cheeky contender who suggests that he has been just flat wrong about pretty much everything he believes he has accomplished.

The panel was rounded out by Kathleen Hall Jamieson who apparently operates America’s premiere ‘fact checking’ service out of the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg Public Policy Center and Alex Jones, the Director of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, who served more as referee than moderator. Simpson was his usual hilarious self, observing that both debaters would perform like, “Fred Astaire on steroids,” babbling into the vapors rather than quenching voters’ thirst for truths about the American condition. His own travels have led him to the conclusion that there is no longer an audience for business-as-usual ‘mush and bullshit.’ All of which led Jamieson to observe that Simpson’s abundant authenticity is projected by his unique combination of conviction and truth telling. That, surprisingly, prompted Simpson to come to the defense of Joe Biden’s recent comment that the middle class has been “buried” by the Great Recession. Not only does he count Biden as a friend, he reported that it was Joe who picked up the phone and urged him to run for the Senate in the first place.

But it was Sorkin, the self-professed ignoramus, who tended to force the discussion. Although he confesses to write about politics because it provides him with interesting stories, he is clearly not without opinions. He drew an appreciative chuckle with his observation that the mock elections being staged in middle schools across the country this year would generally produce more sophisticated debates than the one we were about to witness because there are middle school civics teachers who will demand that their students discuss the real challenges facing Americans. Chuck Todd decried the growing practice where candidates choose their interviewers, favoring the cream puff interrogators of our soft media talk shows. He found this particularly disappointing because of his assessment that this election may be a contest between the two brightest guys to pair off in more than a century. Unfortunately, he noted, they don’t seem to like each other, at least in part because they don’t know each other.

Once again, Sorkin pointed out that Americans were being asphyxiated by bad information and untrue factoids which led to hand wringing about the crucial role that will be played this year by so-called, low information voters — those who were parodied on “Saturday Night Live” last week with questions like, “Can you name at least one of the candidates?” Jamieson, the fact checker, attempted to draw a comparison between the third party deceptions of the Super PACs against the first party duplicity of candidates themselves. That appeared a distinction without a difference. There seemed to be a reluctant consensus that authenticity is not a character trait susceptible to training, except perhaps for the professional actor (think Reagan) or the ‘natural’ (think Clinton). For the inauthentic, even attempts at humor can backfire, aided and abetted by a media pack alert to the slightest gaffe.

Simpson capped the afternoon’s conversation with his definition of a political zealot as, “Someone who redoubles their effort after losing sight of their original objective.” Remind you of anyone you know?