In age of spin, voters yearn for the blunt

Forty years ago John F. Kennedy won the presidency in part because voters wanted someone vibrant and new to follow stodgy Dwight Eisenhower.

Twenty years later Ronald Reagan's White House run was powered by voters pining for strength and optimism - qualities some judged that President Jimmy Carter lacked.

In 2000 voters will pick a president to follow one who discussed what "the meaning of 'is', is," under oath. In reaction, many voters may be looking for a blunt-spoken iconoclast who'd as soon come clean as split hairs.

In fact, "authenticity" is one of the biggest buzzwords in US politics today. In an era when many voters view politics cynically, candidates who veer out of the partisan mold are increasingly successful.

Thus unabashed big-mouth and ex-wrestler Jesse Ventura won the governorship of Minnesota in 1998. And now John McCain of the "Straight Talk Express" has crushed George W. Bush in New Hampshire's primary.

"These candidates don't try to be anything other than what they are," says David McCullough, the historian and biographer of that other icon of authenticity, President Truman. "They're not play-acting. They're not fake."

In fact, the success of McCain, former Sen. Bill Bradley, and even Mr. Ventura shows Americans are "sick of the fake - the fake and the bought." And, he says, "that's wonderful."

In fact, he draws a dramatic parallel between this week's McCain victory and the 20th century's most famous political upset - Truman's defeat of New York Gov. Thomas Dewey in 1948.

"Bush is trying to run a campaign like Dewey," says Mr. McCullough. "Don't rock the boat, and you'll come in with the tide."

Truman, by contrast, dropped his canned speeches mid-campaign and crisscrossed the country on a whistle-stop train tour. During that tour, McCullough says, Truman never gave the same speech twice. Instead, he spoke his mind - an approach that connected with voters. It turned the tide for Truman. And it's similar to McCain's now-famous 115 town meetings in New Hampshire.

Indeed, those meetings endeared McCain to Granite State voters. He's replicating them in the now-crucial state of South Carolina, home of the next big GOP primary on Feb. 19.

"That was 115 times that McCain stood in front of people prepared to say what was in his heart," says Denver-based pollster Floyd Ciruli.

In this era of mistrust of politicians, that got him far, Mr. Ciruli says. "There's a feeling out there that an alien force controls Washington," he says. It's a combination of "money, spin, and polling."

And "the backdrop is Clinton," Ciruli insists, who reportedly took a poll to decide whether to lie about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. In contrast, McCain's quick-witted candor made people in New Hampshire trust him.

There have been other times in US history when the direct approach worked best in politics. After the lies and deception of Watergate, trust became a major issue. And Jimmy Carter, a religious peanut farmer from Georgia who famously promised that he would "never lie to you" was elected president.

Today, it's not only McCain who's known for his let's-cut-through-the-canola style. Mr. Bradley has a more contemplative, even somber personal demeanor - but one that strikes voters as perhaps equally sincere. Bradley professes "a different kind of politics" and touts big ideas about reforming health care and the campaign-finance system.

But one reason his candidacy hasn't sparkled is a lack of charisma - some say passion - to excite voters. Even the now-troubled Republican front-runner, Governor Bush, has an easy Texas charm that connects him quickly with people in crowds. But Bush doesn't come across so well on TV. And his handlers have made him about as accessible as Fort Knox. Also underscoring the importance of authenticity is Vice President Gore's attempts to relax and "get real," which he has done with some success.

But it is McCain who is the outspoken, anti-Washington, "I'll tell it to you straight" man of the moment.

As a kid, McCain was a maverick wiseguy who didn't follow the rules. Later, he was a courageous war hero who blustered back at his torturers. And as a member of Congress he has again been a maverick wiseguy.

Furthermore, his big issues, especially campaign-finance reform, fit his against-the-grain image. Yet some question whether the former Navy man has gone overboard. "It's kind of an ostentatious authenticity," says Yale University political scientist David Mayhew.

Besides, always telling the entire truth can get a politician in trouble and make him a less-effective leader, he adds. "That's part of politics. Different people want different things from you," and politicians accommodate.

"Fudging is just part of the profession," Mr. Mayhew says. Abraham Lincoln, for all his "honest-Abe" image, "was a first-class fudger" on issues like slavery and the Civil War.

But it doesn't always have to be that way, counters five-term Vermont congressman Bernie Sanders, one of two members of Congress who doesn't belong to a major party. "People respect you if they believe you're sincere," he says. "And they'll give you leeway."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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