Pete Seat: Hillary, Evan and authenticity
Thursday, July 17, 2014 10:58 AM
INDIANAPOLIS – Hillary Clinton’s comment that she and former President Bill Clinton were “dead broke” upon leaving The White House in 2001 set off a media firestorm. She was criticized from every angle for being out of touch with the American populace.
Republicans scoffed, pointing out that the Clinton clan was making plenty at the time and that since then Mr. Clinton alone has raked in well over $100 million in fees on the lecture circuit. Coupled with Mrs. Clinton, who pulls in $225,000 per speech herself, the duo has a net worth estimated at upwards of $50 million. Democrats were equally aghast, furious that their presumed standard bearer could be so reckless and disingenuous in trying to be one of us.
But the larger point to me is why? Why is she trying so hard to be “one of us”? She built it, she should own it.
Mrs. Clinton should travel the country and tell everyone within earshot that she built a successful career as a lawyer, U.S. senator, secretary of state, best-selling author and now well-compensated speaker at corporate and educational gatherings. She should tell everyone that she intends to do whatever it takes for more Americans to live that same dream.
Because in life and in politics, authenticity sells. But not everyone owns who they are, afraid that the public will misinterpret their life story, their positions or their quirks and vote against them. However, it’s typically the opposite that happens. When candidates fail to own who they are it usually puts them on the losing side of the electoral equation. It’s part of the who vs. what phenomenon I documented in my recent book, “The War on Millennials.” Americans vote for national leaders more times than not based on their personality traits rather than their tangible solutions to real problems. Think Barack Obama vs. Mitt Romney or Barack Obama vs. John McCain.
In her race to connect, Clinton is attempting to be yet another “who” candidate. She wants to portray herself as being no different than any American who has been forced to file for bankruptcy after losing a factory job or the student stuck with tens of thousands in debt after finally obtaining a bachelor’s degree. She desperately wants to be perceived as a normal everyday person.
But she’s not. She hasn’t been since the late-70s when Bill Clinton was first elected attorney general of Arkansas. From that point forward, Hillary Clinton became anything but normal.
Her “I’m one of you” shtick of 2014, however, is just a throwback to 2008 when she declared, “It’s Saturday night!” while she downed a shot of Crown Royal and hoisted a frosty cold beer at Bronko’s Restaurant and Lounge in Crown Point in a photo that went viral before viral became an annoying and misused term for nearly everything on the Internet.
Sure enough, Mrs. Clinton isn’t the only one who suffers from an inability to own it. Evan Bayh, the former governor and former senator, who once (and probably still) aspired to be president of the U.S. Senate in a hypothetical third Clinton term, is so adept at dodging inquiries from the media that Ben Stiller could have put him to good use in “Dodgeball.” Rather than be disingenuous about who he actually is, Bayh tries to be everything to everyone. In fact, State Rep. Charlie Brown, a Gary Democrat, once said he “sometimes questioned whether [Bayh] brushed his teeth without taking a poll.”
On the Republican side of the aisle, Bob Dole failed to own it during the 1996 presidential election and, as a result, found himself in an awkward position days after polls closed. Having been effortlessly dispatched by the Clinton reelection machine, Dole took to Hoosier native David Letterman’s late night talk show for a chat, except the Dole who appeared wasn’t the Dole Americans had come to know over the preceding months. Instead, Dole was funny, witty and self-deprecating. His performance left many, including ABC newsman Ted Koppel, who followed Dole on the show that night, wondering what could have been “if Bob Dole had only shown that side of himself a little more often.”
Of course, hindsight, especially in politics, is 20-20. But authenticity is a potent force in American life today. Reality television shows dominate the ratings because we get to see people in their most raw and unguarded moments.
In their attempts to prove they are in touch with us, Clinton, Bayh and Dole became out of touch with themselves. Their cautious discipline turned into the paralysis of analysis, and their public political persona became a doppelganger of the real person vying for our support.
Pete Seat is senior project manager at the Indianapolis-based Hathaway Strategies and author of the recently published book “The War on Millennials.” He was previously a spokesman for President George W. Bush, U.S. Sen. Dan Coats and the Indiana Republican Party.