Since Joe Biden has been weighing a run for president, members of the press have repeatedly praised him for his "authenticity." This has largely been in contrast to Hillary Clinton, who is frequently pilloried by the media as secretive and calculating, and has its members yearning for a more natural candidate. "With Joe Biden, what you see is what you get," Mike Barnicle wrote for the Daily Beast.
Even the anecdotes about Biden's political calculations have portrayed him as a conflicted, grieving father. On August 1, New York Times op-ed columnist Maureen Dowd narrated a heart-wrenching private moment that occurred among the Biden family. Dowd wrote that the vice president's dying son Beau, his face "partially paralyzed," sat down with his "anguished" father and urged him to run for president — "arguing that the White House should not revert to the Clintons and that the country would be better off with Biden values."
Now it turns out that her source — according to a report by Politico's Edward-Isaac Dovere today — was Joe Biden himself.
The story Biden told Dowd is indeed touching. But his apparent decision to anonymously leak it fits oddly with the media's narrative of his authenticity — indeed, it's the kind of thing a calculating, secretive politician might do. As Dovere writes, it was basically "an ad in The New York Times," effectively asking potential donors and backers for their support — and it achieved its purpose.
And notably, Biden was speaking to a columnist whose longtime loathing for Hillary Clinton has been so undisguised that she was once chastised for it by the Times's public editor. (In the same column with Biden's leak, Dowd trashed Clinton for her "entitlement," "history of subterfuge," "queenly attitude," and "pattern of cutting corners.")
The point of this is not to beat up on Biden. Leaks to the press — to humanize yourself, or to attack your enemies — are part of how every politician plays the game.
But the revelation is a reminder that we should be highly skeptical of the way "authenticity" is commonly treated by the political media. Because if it got out that a politician deemed to be less of a straight talker — like Hillary Clinton — did something like what Biden just did, she'd be ripped to shreds.
Don't trust media accounts of who's authentic
It may seem obvious to state that all high-level politicians are calculating and strategic, with hopes of advancing their own careers and achieving their aims. And yet members of the media are positively obsessed with judging these politicians on their personal authenticity.
Some politicians — like Biden and John McCain (particularly in 2000) — are deemed to be genuine individuals, while others — Al Gore, Hillary Clinton, and Mitt Romney — are viewed as calculating, contrived phonies.
The rationale for these judgments differs from candidate to candidate. They could involve flip-flops on issues, real or perceived dishonesty, or even just wooden campaign styles.
But frequently, "authenticity" seems to be a synonym for "better at working the press" or "more fun to cover." The candidates who are more extroverted and freewheeling and less scripted — and those who joke with the press and give them lots of access — tend to get that label. McCain, who continuously bantered with reporters on his "Straight Talk Express" bus in 2000, is the classic example.
It's an odd construct. The campaign trail is not in any sense a "natural" environment, and presidential contenders' words could have very real consequences — it makes sense for a candidate to be guarded and careful about what he or she says. But reporters get bored covering candidates who give the same stump speech all the time, and yearn for more excitement in their lives.
Importantly, once a candidate gets the "authentic" label, his (it's usually "his") flip-flops, calculations and strategic acts are excused, or at least viewed as unrelated to his true character. For instance, Politico's Glenn Thrush recently called Biden both "the nicest most sincere and menschy national pol I've ever covered" and "a natural born bullshit artist" in the very same tweet.
Joe Biden (while being a natural born bullshit artist) is the nicest most sincere and menschy national pol I've ever covered.— Glenn Thrush (@GlennThrush) August 1, 2015
Conversely, candidates deemed inauthentic are disproportionately slammed for any alleged infractions. During the 1999-2000 campaign, Al Gore was mercilessly mocked by the press for supposed lies that were either true or inventions of the media, as Bob Somerby has chronicled.
These narratives frequently stick even when contradictory evidence emerges. "Talk of authenticity," Paul Krugman wrote in 2007, "lets commentators and journalists put down politicians they don’t like or praise politicians they like, with no relationship to what the politicians actually say or do."
Politicians are politicians, and that's okay
In 2007, Barack Obama's campaign aides worked hard to portray the Illinois senator as above the usual political sniping. But when Ryan Lizza visited Obama's headquarters that summer, he saw a whiteboard listing several negative stories about Hillary Clinton and John Edwards — paired with the names of reporters or news organizations the campaign apparently intended to feed these stories to. Despite the lofty rhetoric, Obama was running an operation with little fear of the dark arts of electoral politics.
That — along with Biden's leak to Dowd — goes to show that, as Brendan Nyhan wrote in a great Upshot column last week, the supposed "authenticity" of some of these politicians can itself be a kind of studied performance or carefully crafted image. "We shouldn’t assume that politicians who appear to be sincere are actually more genuine or revealing of their true selves," Nyhan wrote. "Like the stars you see telling scripted anecdotes on talk shows, they’re often just skilled at performing their public role."
Nyhan points to a post from political scientist Richard Skinner, who describes how beloved American political figures such as George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt, and Dwight Eisenhower were all extremely adept at crafting their images, and at appearing less calculating than they in fact were. That's totally fine — image management is an important and necessary political skill — but we shouldn't assume that a politician's talent for it reveals his or her true nature.
Now, I don't know what Joe Biden is actually like in private. One former longtime aide of his, Jeff Connaughton, wrote a tell-all book blasting Biden as selfish, arrogant, rude, and extremely ambitious — even going as far as to call him an "egomaniacal autocrat." Other former aides say nicer things.
But the vice president has been in Washington for 42 years and knows perfectly well that his "unvarnished" persona is one of his best political assets. So the idea that Hillary Clinton is calculating and Joe Biden isn't should be put to bed. He knows perfectly well what he's doing.