In the September 1 Seattle Times, Michael Gerson describes Mitt Romneyʻs style as “the retro candidate.” He says: His stories are sentimental, his jokes are corny, his parents are his heroes and his family is aggressively nuclear. There is an admirable defiance about it all. You want authenticity? You got it. In your heart you know he’s square.”
Itʻs a clever article that lays out an important observation of Romneyʻs strategic performance. Gerson says the candidate “inhabits the world before Mrs. Robinson… not nostalgia, but a lifestyle choice.” And he concludes that “Romney has often been dinged for lacking authenticity. Whatever its faults, his convention speech was relentlessly authentic. Romney is a solid, sentimental, not particularly ideological, highly respected businessman. This is not the normal profile of a transformative leader. But in a country where a little public competence and responsibility are distant dreams, it is probably enough.”
Wow. This is an interesting view of authenticity. Letʻs see, whatʻs the definition here: retro, conservative, family oriented.” I beg to differ. Authenticity is NOT a connection to a nostalgic idea of self, protected, by the way, by considerable wealth that shielded the Romney empire from having to deal with any real change. Further, itʻs a performance thatʻs more a political statement than a personal one, because itʻs a strategy, not a way of being. Romney has to disavow past decisions and avoid transparency (in his back taxes, in discussing his rationale for supporting Massachusettʻs universal health care act) in order to maintain his authenticity.
And authenticity, no matter what cynics might say, is not a strategy for getting votes/action/followers. Itʻs a personal decision from the roots up. Romneyʻs imaginary authenticity is just a show — for now. Itʻs campaign-trail rhetoric, business-style charisma. So Gersonʻs leap to transformative leadership is a bit silly — rhetorical persuasion and businesslike logic in an election isnʻt about change — change happens after the election. The conventions and the campaign trail are a highly funded rhetorical circus, at least lately, not a way for leaders to speak authentically and clearly.
To my mind, Clint Eastwoodʻs rambling and foolish “invisible Obama” play was more authentic than Romneyʻs polished presentation. I mean, with Eastwood, you could see how the man works, who he is. He was present — if a little odd.
Leadership is what happens on the ground, not what happens in the heady ether of the RNC or the DNC. Romneyʻs wife can shout, “Trust Mitt!” to the sound of cheers and applause, but authentic leadership, in its highest form, is about what happens when a leader shows us what trust means by actually doing something. As Iʻve said before, authenticity is as authenticity does, and that means speeches (no matter who speechifies them) offer no test of authenticity.
As a nation, we need to learn the difference between authenticity and charisma, between consistent action and consistent rhetoric. In a campaign, we should be asking hard questions to test the leader behind the rhetoric. Thatʻs where weʻll find the measures of authenticity in any candidate, not in the carefully constructed public face at the podium.