When Hillary Clinton announced her presidential exploratory committee while sitting on a couch in her living room, she didn't project warmth so much as a sense that she was desperately trying to project warmth.
As TV producer Steve Rosenbaum wrote of her performance on the liberal Web site The Huffington Post: "Hillary is struggling with words that are not her own. You can practically see the teleprompter reflected in her eyes. Every word has been word-smithed, every phrase looked at by a team of consultants."
Welcome to the Hillary Clinton campaign, which will be the most blatantly calculated presidential campaign in memory. Almost all political campaigns involve falsity and playacting, but it is Hillary's lot in life not to be able to fake it well, so the scriptwriting and the consultants' work show through. She seems to take the advice to "act naturally" literally, and the acting is always more in evidence than the naturalness.
Thus, the great battle is joined between the ruthless, highly effective inauthenticity of Hillary Clinton and the vapid, feel-good authenticity of Barack Obama.
Calculation has its advantages. After Obama made his announcement of an exploratory committee last week, exciting anti-war liberals, Clinton stepped on his message by briefly getting to his left on the war with her new proposal for a cap on the number of troops in Iraq. Then, she announced her own exploratory committee just in time to steal Obama's thunder going into the new week. Message to Obama: Fighting the Clinton machine won't be as easy as picking up favorable press clips.
But no one likes naked calculation, and Clinton worries Democrats traumatized by the experience of their last few presidential candidates. Because liberalism typically doesn't sell in American presidential politics, liberal candidates tend to run as culturally conservative centrists — i.e., phonies. It sank both John Kerry, who couldn't even order a Philly cheesesteak properly, and Al Gore, who adopted three such utterly different personas in three national presidential debates that his performances could be a case study in abnormal-psychology classes.
The two tried, ineffectually, to duplicate the success of Bill Clinton. He was a liberal who could appeal — prior to Monica-gate — to conservative-leaning "Bubba" voters. He was a Southerner who had no problem negotiating fried food, and he governed as a centrist from 1994 to 1998. Just as importantly, his fakery was so deft and deeply ingrained that it was impossible to tell where it ended and the real Bill Clinton began. This constituted a kind of political genius, and it won't soon be repeated, certainly not by his wife.
If Bill was all id, Hillary is all superego. Comedians still make fun of Bill's out-of-control appetites, but with Hillary, the mockery is about how she lets nothing be out of control (except perhaps her husband). Last weekend, "Saturday Night Live" portrayed her explaining her position on the war thusly: "I think most Democrats know me. They understand that my support for the war was always insincere. Of course, knowing what we know now, that you could vote against the war and still be elected president, I would never have pretended to support it."
Even Democrats would be hard-pressed not to see truth in that skit, and that's why, even if she's a strong favorite for the nomination, it's hardly a lock. Democrats and the press yearn for the youthful freshness, the relaxed grace of another JFK, and they hope they see it in Obama. But Obama's "new politics" remain maddeningly undefined. Perhaps this means there will be an opening for John Edwards, who is consultant-driven, but still fresh-seeming, who is a JFK-wannabe but with a discernible message that Obama lacks.
All that is certain is that at some defining moment during the campaign, Hillary Clinton will face an unexpected challenge. She will have to react to it without the benefit of careful handling or a script, and that moment will determine whether or not all her calculation goes for naught.