John McCain and the Authenticity Trap

Why "let McCain be McCain" doesn't wash

In an early episode of The West Wing, President Jed Bartlet and his chief of staff, Leo McGarry—struggling with what Scott McClellan would later call, after his stint in the real-world version of that corridor, “the permanent campaign culture in Washington”—argue about the relationship between conviction and compromise in presidential politics. The two decide that accomplishing their goals is more important than getting re-elected: they’re going to start being true to their own vision for the country. “Do you have a strategy for all this?” Bartlet asks.

McGarry scrawls his answer on a legal pad: “Let Bartlet Be Bartlet.”

Peggy Noonan, who was a West Wing consultant before her most recent reincarnation as a Wall Street Journal columnist, perhaps had that scene in mind when she wrote her recent column, the Sorkin-esque “Let McCain Be McCain.” Take McCain off the leash, Noonan advised. Let him roam. Let him be. “The most interesting thing about Mr. McCain has always been the delight he takes in a certain unblinkered candor,” she writes. “Get him in the papers being who he is, get people looking at his real nature. Maybe then they’ll start taking him seriously when he talks policy. Maybe he’ll start taking himself seriously when he talks policy.”

Well. Noonan, as she so often does, proved prescient: This past week, we’ve heard much about McCain Being McCain—and particularly about his Selfhood as expressed and enabled by his quirky/sharp/rude/unamusing/old-fashioned/callous/smokin’ sense of humor. So, this past week, the McCain campaign has attempted to turn the criticisms of its candidate’s comedy on their head. Humor, McCain’s spokespeople declare, is a mark of Authenticity. Though some of the candidate’s jokes have been (mis?)interpreted as offensive, misogynistic, just plain bizarre, etc., the gags aren’t a liability, they say; on the contrary, McCain’s wisecracks are central to his appeal. “He’s long said that he’s said and done things in the past that he regrets,” McCain spokesman Brian Rogers told United Press International. “You’ve just got to move on and be yourself—that’s what people want. They want somebody who’s authentic and this kind of stuff is a good example of McCain being McCain.”

Per this formulation, the content of McCain’s jokes isn’t the point. The point is that, in making jokes that could be construed as offensive, McCain is being true to himself. That McCain is being, you know, McCain. (He tells off-color jokes? That’s so like him. How charmingly idiosyncratic! How delightfully Maverick!)

On the one hand, of course, such a formulation is completely valid. It’s refreshing to see a candidate—hey, any politician—crack jokes, even at the risk of blowback from the sometimes super-sensitive media. You could read not just a bold stubbornness, but also a quiet nobility, in McCain’s Emerson-esque truth-to-self-above-all-else, in his refusal to prance, as so many others have, in Politics’ Pageant—something both admirable and quintessentially American. As Politico’s Ben Smith notes, “To McCain’s friends and supporters, the humor is a mark of his authenticity. To his detractors, some of the jokes are offensive and out of touch with contemporary mores. What’s undeniable, though, is that the humor, with its political risks and, to some, its charm, is intrinsic to John McCain.”

You can’t help but notice that, in both outcomes of Smith’s either/or, McCain comes out on top. Either: his off-color jokes are a sign of authenticity…or: his off-color jokes are offensive and out of touch, but he tells them anyway. Which is a sign of authenticity. Win…win!

Thus, the other hand. The whole humor-as-authentic notion, and its parent, the McCain-as-authentic narrative, is—for his campaign—a nearly ideal corollary to the McMaverick meme that is now so common it’s become the stuff of cliché. Voters “are putting a premium on authenticity this year,” GOP strategist Matthew Dowd told the LA Times—and a humor narrative that, even in its most negative light, reinforces the candidate’s Straight Shooter Authenticity is, for them, rhetorical gold. No wonder they’re pushing it.

And, indeed, the “let McCain be McCain” line of logic is extremely familiar. Sunday’s New York Times profile of McCain, which details his transformation from the Senate’s class clown to its star student, quotes the Arizona senator’s former colleague, Lindsay Graham. “There was almost a sense of freedom,” Graham told David Kirkpatrick of McCain’s primary loss in 2000. “It reinforced his impulse: ‘I am going to be me.’”

And describing McCain’s casual garb while attending a Yankees game this weekend, CNN’s go-to “image expert,” Heidi Berenson, told Rick Sanchez, “He’s being authentic, and authenticity really is the word of the day.”

Et cetera.

The media, in this, aren’t just reflecting American attitudes about authenticity—namely, that we’d tolerate our candidates being a great number of things before we’d tolerate their being phony. They’re also subscribing to the West Wing logic of governance: that truth-to-self will somehow lead a president to effective leadership. Which is, put charitably, a dubious assumption.

McCain, like every other candidate, has both moments of genuineness and moments of performance. The interest is, of course, in the ratio between the two kinds of moments, between how often McCain is being himself and how often he is being a performer. But the authenticity narrative the press has—so far—written for him doesn’t allow for the nuance of that analysis. McCain has been established as “authentic,” and the media have basically left the matter at that.

Here’s the problem, though: by allowing authenticity as a campaign-trail criterion in the first place—and by framing it as something to be achieved, rather than as a self-evident tautology, something that simply is—the press deprives itself of its own capacity for accountability. How, after all, can you hold a candidate liable for his behavior when the only standard for that behavior is set by the candidate himself? How can you blame John McCain for just being John McCain?

So McCain gets to bask in the glow of his own authenticity—and, as a bonus, his missteps also find themselves bathed in that haze. Take, again, his jokes. In framing his more off-color gags not as gaffes, but as evidence of his genuineness—“he tells off-color jokes, how authentic”—the media essentially insulated him from further discussion of those jokes’ content. (“That’s just McCain being McCain.” “That’s just how he is.” Et cetera.) By dismissing his missteps in that way, the media didn’t just ignore the jokes’ broader implications; they legitimized them as evidence of the senator’s authenticity.

Lighten up—they’re only jokes, you may say. Fair enough, that they are—and, hey, some of them are funny. And yet. The press’s treatment of the gags, especially given that that treatment fits into a larger framework about McCain, has slippery-slope potential. There have been moments, after all, when McCain hasn’t been such a maverick, when he hasn’t been so “authentic”—when he, like Obama, has shifted or moved to the middle or what you will for the sake of political expediency. There will be more. That’s politics.

But just as Obama has been cushioned by the narrative his own campaign has been pushing—of his transcendence, of his being somehow above traditional rules precisely because he claims to be rewriting those rules—McCain has been insulated by his own authenticity. Both candidates have been given, to some extent, free rides. But the press is now questioning Obama’s pass—and it should be doing the same for McCain. “He’s just being himself” should no longer be an acceptable explanation for his statements or actions. Voters may be interested in McCain being McCain, but they’re much more interested in the press being the press.

Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.