Searching for the elusive authentic candidate

Jackie Gingrich Cushman
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Posted: Jun 10, 2007 12:00 AM
Searching for the elusive authentic candidate

From plastic plants to fake fur, we are surrounded by items that are not "authentic" or real, but imitations – some good, some not so. (Has anyone been to NYC's Chinatown recently?) This transition has come about for a variety of reasons, including lower cost (polyester vs. silk), reduced maintenance (plastic plants vs. real ones), or a belief in not causing harm (fake fur vs. pelts) that may make the authentic item less desirable than the imitation.

While such replacements might mean less cost, less upkeep or an increase in longevity, there is normally a tradeoff. It might be easier to take care of a silk version of a Stargazer Lily, but it lacks the fragrance of the real flower.

Every day, each of us makes tradeoffs between benefit and cost in numerous personal decisions. I might go for a silk fern, but would never consider carrying a knock-off Chanel handbag.

With the popularity of tabloid magazines and the ubiquity of advertising, we are surrounded by pictures and ideals that most people cannot meet, naturally. According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, 11 million cosmetic procedures were performed last year in the United States costing $11 billion. This might lead one to think our society prizes outward appearance more than authenticity.

What one may perceive as authentic may not actually be authentic. Authenticity requires a focus on core beliefs and the strength to stand firm amidst changing events over which one may have no control. In contrast, the perception of authenticity can be imparted even if it's ungrounded in truth.

You rarely see the words "politics" and "authenticity" in the same sentence, unless the reference is derogatory. People often think of politicians as polished, controlled and contrived, not authentic and real.

David Greenberg's recent blog in "The New Republic" notes that "since Truman it has been extraordinarily hard to find any politician presumed to be genuine," and that "The most common way to attack a candidate today--to go to the heart of his or her legitimacy--is to charge her or him with being phony."

If our society is looking for an authentic candidate, maybe we should first define what it means to be authentic. The online Merriam Webster dictionary defines the adjective as: "worthy of acceptance or belief as conforming to or based on fact….true to one's own personality, spirit, or character."

So, do we want our candidates to be worthy of acceptance or true to themselves? Many times these attributes oppose each other. A candidate deemed worthy of acceptance might be thought of as willing to bend his or her beliefs to make them appear acceptable to others. But being true to oneself connotes being willing to take stands, even unpopular ones, as long as they are heartfelt.

Pundits sometimes talk about flip-flopping and point accusing fingers at those who have changed their view points. I don't agree with them. People should learn every day, and this learning should, from time to time, lead to changes of position or perspective. I do agree with a recent article by conservative talk show host Michael Medved, who noted that flip-flopping ("change of mind") is different from contradiction ("indicates confusion rather than change".)

In saying we seek authentic candidates, we may mean that we want them to be real people, just like us. But guess what? They are real people. It could be that, since few of us routinely interact with candidates on a personal level, we have forgotten that they are humans and that, as such, they are bound to make mistakes.

Some believe that, to be authentic, we must line up what we think, say and do so that they are all in agreement - easy to say, but impossible to carry out. The question is not whether we embody contradictions or make mistakes. We all do. More important is whether we acknowledge them with the goal of moving forward or cover them up with the goal of hiding our inadequacies or insecurities. It could be that, by acknowledging that candidates are people, we would have to come to grips with our own human frailties and recognize our own search for authenticity.

Are we asking the impossible of our candidates? Are we asking for what we wish we had in our own lives -- authenticity without human error? Voters might have to decide whether they prefer authenticity - and the human failings it must, by definition, include - or the appearance of perfection, knowing that true perfection is unattainable.