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Politics as Theater: In Search of Authenticity

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Politics has become theater. We all know that.

The red, white and blue imagery and carefully crafted zingers, the inspirational slogans and worked-over speeches, the prepared spin and manufactured cheers are all as familiar to television audiences as the interchangeable video of crashing waves and flapping palms in hurricane coverage.

Even the language of politics has become that of Hollywood. Candidates don't prepare for a debate; they "rehearse" and they are judged on the quality of their "performance." They are, above all, stars with fans who often respond to the person more than to the issues.

It bears remembering that in another pivotal and bitterly partisan election in 1860, most voters had never seen a photograph of the candidates, much less knew that Abraham Lincoln was a tenor rather than a bass or baritone, according to contemporary accounts. Newspaper photographs had not yet appeared, and Edison's invention of sound recording was years away.

As we've watched campaign 2012 at the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, these ideas have been very much on our minds. How can the media create space for authentic dialogue and real ideas when politics have become so theatrical? Today at 12:45 p.m. MST in Denver, Aaron Sorkin, Senator Al Simpson, Kathleen Hall Jamieson and Chuck Todd will join me for a conversation on the subject that can be viewed live online here. To show what we mean by Politics as Theater, we prepared a short video of some classic examples, which you can watch here.

It is now a huge advantage, if not an absolute requirement, that a candidate for high national office be a good actor. Ronald Reagan's delivery of his lines was that of an experienced thespian, and occasionally there is a natural, like Bill Clinton. But at a minimum, a credible candidate must be able to act authentic. Not be authentic. Act authentic. The theater of politics is a massive effort to manufacture a sense of authenticity.

Our realization that politics is saturated with showbiz has made our occasional glimpses of genuine authenticity highly prized. But in a poignant irony, the only political performances that are sure to be considered genuinely authentic are the disasters. The huge importance of gaffes is that they seem to reveal something unscripted, which means that genuine authenticity almost always harms those who commit it. Perhaps the most authentic thing in the 2000 presidential race was Al Gore's awkward inability to appear sincere. If he could have convincingly acted sincere, we assume he would have.

We yearn to feel that willing suspension of disbelief that makes movies and plays so engaging and real, and woe to those who fail. In the political arena, incompetent acting is punished more savagely than on the Broadway stage, and Gore's bad acting was treated as a character flaw.

Clint Eastwood's unscripted conversation with a chair was judged the only unquestionably authentic moment in a convention whose theatrical refinement was honed down to color of bunting and speed with which the balloons would flow. And the impact of Mitt Romney's surreptitiously-taped speech about the 47% was all the more damning for being unintended for public view.

The most terrible price we pay for politics as theater is that it taints some genuinely authentic political moments and robs them of their full power because the audience, conditioned to be cynical, senses the stage managers just out of camera range.

As we watch the debate tonight, we can be sure that both candidates have rehearsed prepared lines that they will speak regardless of the questions they are asked.

But there will be two actors on the stage and the debate will be to some extent an improvisation where even the best prepared line can prove disastrous.

In 1992, Dan Quayle delivered a carefully crafted answer in the vice presidential debate to a question he knew he would face about his relative inexperience in Congress.

"I have as much experience in Congress as Jack Kennedy did when he sought the presidency," Quayle said. It wasn't a bad line and might have worked for him had he not been up against Lloyd Bentsen, an opponent who apparently could improvise like a master. Or, more likely, he had anticipated the comparison and had his own lines ready.

After a dramatic pause, Bentsen said in a voice soaked with scorn, "I knew Jack Kennedy; Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you're no Jack Kennedy." It was a rhetorical coup de grace.

And great theater.