Come in Spinner: Searching out authenticity

Companies, politicians, marketers and many others constantly aspire to finding, suggesting, mimicking or demonstrating authenticity.

The ongoing saga of the real and the other Julia are but one manifestation of that, just as is the current spate of articles Tony Abbott’s media team are encouraging about his ‘other dimensions’. For politicians, marketers and PR people trying to create a sense of authenticity is a never-ending quest. And, while inauthentic authenticity ought to be easy to identify it is often much harder than we think.

The problem was summed up by Groucho Marx (or George Burns and other assorted candidates to whom variations have been ascribed) who was quoted as saying that the most important thing in life was sincerity (or honesty) and that once you learned to fake it you had it made.

On Australia Day the clip of Julia Gillard inside the Lobby was probably the real Julia — calm, considered and reasoned. The front pages of newspapers depicting her as she was bundled into her car were inauthentic in that the image did not match the reality – losing a shoe and being hustled rather than panicked. Her staff would have love to circulate the clip but had to contend with the other images instead. In politics you need some luck — for instance Margaret Thatcher would have ended her career with the Falklands if one or two Argentinian Exocet missiles had managed to go off after hitting their targets. Julia Gillard rarely enjoys it, and even when she does, the News Limited media and the shock jocks can be trusted to ensure there is another, derogatory, explanation for it shouted to their audiences.

The classicist and political journalist, Garry Wills, has just published a collection of essays – part reportage and part memoir – which throws some light on political authenticity.  His success as a classicist depended on close reading and his success as a political journalist depended on equally close reading of who his subjects were. The book, Outside Looking In (Penguin, 2011), explains how he thinks he may have started the habit of asking politicians about what they read in an attempt to flesh out what sort of people they were. On the campaign plane with Richard Nixon in 1968 he asked Nixon what books he had read and which had influenced him. Nixon discussed a number of books and then nominated a biography by Claude Bowers of Albert Beveridge. Bowers was a friend of Franklin Roosevelt and Beveridge was a progressive Republican who had written a four volume biography of John Marshall. It was this answer which partly prompted the writing of Wills’ Nixon Agonistes, the most nuanced biography of Nixon and one which infuriated many of Wills’ friends.

The question about books is now commonplace. Karl Rove was always telling the White House press corps what books George W. was reading and politicians’ summer reading is a standard December-January story for media unit distribution.  George H. Bush on the other hand was frank about not reading much and that what he did read was pushed on him by his impressive wife, Barbara. Sometimes it’s not the media unit that manipulates the image – but the politician him/herself. When Wills asked Bill Clinton the same question Clinton insisted on asking what Wills was reading. Wills reluctantly replied that he was reading a lot of things for the book he was producing on Augustine’s Confessions. Clinton then replied, to the astonishment of his staff, that his favourite book was Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. Wills says sales of the Meditations got a boost when paperback editions carried a banner saying it was President Clinton’s favourite book – although Wills also points out that Aurelius work, among other things, condemns yielding to s-xual indulgence.

There are now manifold ways of suggesting political authenticity — Mitt Romney’s jeans, open-necked shirts for weekend TV interviews, predictions of the winners of Grand Finals, Test matches, the Melbourne Cup and entering the office tipping competition. On the other hand Ted Baillieu, John Brumby and John Button shared a genuine passion for Australian Rules football unlike Paul Keating’s rather strange acceptance of Collingwood’s Number 1 membership ticket. Barry Jones’ authentic passion about books, music and ideas is one of the reasons he attracted more campaign event invitations than anyone other than the PM in the Hawke-Keating years. Queensland’s notorious Russ Hinze was breathtakingly authentic and hilariously funny talking about himself and his political career. Bob Katter is half authentic and half inauthentic — although it’s always hard to pick which is which – but the inauthenticity possibly stems from the same source as Harold MacMillan’s diffidence about letting people know just how smart he actually was.

We can pick the inauthentic clanger easily – Mitt Romney’s jeans are up there with Paul Keating’s passion for the Pies. Sometimes the less than genuine just doesn’t quite ring true – as with John Brumby’s woodenly serious and purposeful television persona. How such a warm, funny and intelligent man came to, or was persuaded to, project an image so distant from the reality is one of the puzzles of Victorian election history. Sometimes the inauthentic is so good that we are totally convinced by it, and just sometimes our cynicism makes us mistake the authentic for a creation.

So if there is a real Julia which is the real Tony? Perhaps it’s the one we see?