"I think I'm like most Americans. I'm very excited to learn more about him as the man, as the dad, as the husband," says North Carolina delegate Donna Williams. "To me, I think that tells a lot about a person and their character as far as what they've done in their life."
BUT EVEN for voters who say they put issues first, personal qualities matter. For example, Popkin notes that a candidate can change his mind — the dreaded flip-flop — so long as voters believe the candidate's explanation. Put another way, a candidate can change position but not principles.
While log cabins and coonskin hats were part of American politics from the republic's earliest decades, the intense focus on the personal is not a tradition.
"It is a fairly recent thing that we expect political leaders to drone on about their life stories in these major speeches," says Michael Waldman, a former speech writer for President Clinton.
"Kennedy conveyed who he was by talking about the New Frontier at Los Angeles in 1960, not by dramatically recounting PT-109. Roosevelt talked about the New Deal and would have been aghast at the idea that he should talk about how polio shaped his sensibility."
But something about our modern culture has created an appetite for personal information. "Authenticity is overrated as a virtue for leaders," Waldman says. "It's a peculiar aspect of American politics, since we combine the head of government and the head of state."
Nomiki Konst, a Democrat who ran unsuccessfully for congress in Arizona, sees the real problem as this: Modern politics has been peddling what she calls "perfectly constructed authentic candidates." Her phrase conjures the image of Chauncey Gardner, the fictional character who knew nothing and said little but, by just "Being There," became the vessel for everyone's dreams and beliefs, ultimately becoming president.
Voters, says Konst, are really yearning for candidates who are willing to lead without the constant fear of offending constituents or fundraisers. "When you're in a crisis, no amount of data mining, polling and market research will get you out of that crisis," she said. And boldness? That, she says, would be real authenticity.
EDITOR'S NOTE — Michael Oreskes is senior managing editor for U.S. news at The Associated Press. Reach him at moreskes(at)ap.org.
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