Authenticity: Politics' Little Black Dress

As the GOP presidential campaign plays on, the question remains why one of the four current players has yet to put an end to the contest.  The answer lies in a simple but elusive spiritual value: authenticity.  Somewhere along the line, one candidate must demonstrate that the things he lives for and stands for in the world are expressions of his "true self" and consonant with a defining set of personal values.

In the race for president, authenticity can be the political Holy Grail -- the clarifying quest for that mystical union with the voters which can spell victory.

After his unexpected win in the South Carolina primary, Newt Gingrich proclaimed on CBS' Face the Nation: "I think the number one thing people look for in difficult times is authenticity.  They want somebody who is what he seems; somebody who is comfortable with himself; somebody who's able to have force in what he's saying or she's saying because they actually believe it."  In other words, "What you see is what you get."

Rick Santorum's cri de coeur during the presidential debate in Arizona -- "I'm real, Ron. I'm real, I'm real!" -- was less a protest against Ron Paul's charge (that the former Pennsylvania senator is "a fake" on fiscal conservatism) than a desperate plea not to be branded as inauthentic.  Even offering up his hands as proof of his realness.

Throughout the GOP campaign, Mitt Romney has devoted considerable time and money claiming he is, and has always been, an authentic conservative -- insisting at the CPAC convention that as governor of Massachusetts, "I was a severely conservative Republican governor!"

Then there's Ron Paul, whom some consider the most authentic of the GOP candidates, but whose odd-man-out brand of authenticity -- delivered in a curious, Lone-Star stream-of-consciousness way -- has yet to gain purchase as an electable vision of the next "most powerful leader of the free world."

But what makes "authenticity" such a hard-won prize?

French writer Michel de Montaigne once said, "The greatest thing in the world is to know how to belong to oneself."  The idea of a person thinking of himself as an individual -- with a distinct identity and a unique interior life -- was one of the great contributions of Renaissance thought.  From this we could logically frame the proposition that our deepest sense of individuality inspires how we live our lives in the world.  And if this sense of personal alignment is consistent and in harmony, then it could be said we are living an authentic life.

Philosophically, this revealing of ourselves is achieved by the reflection and affirmation of our defining values.

But we are also political creatures -- whose values and judgments inform ideologies which characterize our social system.  When we are asked to choose between those among us who would be our "representative voices," it reveals how ideological we truly are.  Our political decisions resonate with the determinations we make about the nature of who we are.  In a perfect world, our authentically validated selves are our ideologically validated selves.  This synergy, or lack of it, in our presidential candidates is what makes our choices so difficult and the road to Tampa that much longer.

It has been said that the most important judgment we pass in our lives is the one we pass on ourselves.

On the continuing campaign trail in a city whose name has been forgotten -- after all the speeches and smiles and glad-handing has ended for the day -- what question does the man who would be king finally ask the mirror?  Is it, "Who am I?"; "Have I made the right choices?"; "Am I living a purposeful life?"; or perhaps like Montaigne, "I care not so much what I am to others as what I am to myself."

We would like to think that these men know.  That we are in the hands of men of authority.  That they understand and identify with us and share our desires.  That they are consistent and true to the world, and that there is something ineffable in what they say.  In a word, "authentic" men.

I fear the answer remains like "Rosebud" -- we will never know.