Against Authenticity

Devotion to truthfulness is a great virtue, but it ceases to be a virtue when it declares itself the only truth -- when it cannot moderate its positions or play well with others, as they say in nursery school.
01/20/2016 09:04 am ET Updated Jan 20, 2017

As the polls keep shifting towards a Bernie Sanders victory in the early primary states, I am increasingly worried. What troubles me is not that Sanders is a hypocrite -- far from it; it is that he is a man of too many certainties -- like Ted Cruz on the other side, he believes everything he says, now and forever. I fear that he is far too "authentic" to be an effective president. I favor people who change their mind, who see life and the world in shades of grey, not red, white and blue, or black and white. I like my politicians to turn on a dime when circumstances show that change is needed, capable of grabbing a shovel when it snows and not standing in the blizzard cursing the weather. Authenticity can only take us so far.

Yes, the devotion to truthfulness is a great virtue, but it ceases to be a virtue when it declares itself the only truth -- when it cannot moderate its positions or play well with others, as they say in nursery school. I am sure that Ted Cruz is authentic. He speaks his mind, has held his strong "originalist" views about the constitution, preaches for more guns after Sandy Hook, and has remained the same since debating in high school, believing that we pay too much mind to the poor and disadvantaged -- that they should rise on their own. Like many middle class kids who have moved higher in the world than their parents, he fails to realize what a great hand up he was given by being born into a family that believed in education. Cruz is the "authentic" moral bully -- one who, if elected, could only bring disaster to the country.

Trump is also authentic to those who follow him; he says what is on his mind -- the fact that his mind is a toilet that sorely needs a good plumber means nothing to them. He is "real" -- "authentic."

Hillary Clinton has often been accused of being inauthentic, particularly by such queens of journalism as Andrea Mitchell and Maureen Dowd. That means that there is a bit too much cackle in her laugh, a bit too much force in her pronouncements, a bit too much forgiveness for her stray hound-dog of a husband -- and that she only means half of what she says, and that half has switched positions from past positions. FDR, perhaps the most inauthentic president of my lifetime, acted covertly in guiding us towards WW2 while pretending that his goal was for the USA to remain neutral; he cheated on Eleanor time and again, and did next to nothing to help those fleeing fascism in order to assuage a non-interventionist voting public. Yet, he still remains a great president. He gave us Social Security, a true game changer in the life of the country; he gave us the WPA, tried to give us the NRA, and fought to get the country out of its great slump and back on its feet. A leader. Not to be trusted.

Authenticity was the hallmark of Ronnie's presidency. He pasted a smile over all the little treacheries -- giving arms in exchange for prisoners and lying about it, claiming to be an everyman while catering only to the rich, invading teeny-tiny countries in order to show he was more than a movie-star hero, and glad-handing the world when he clearly despised that part of the world that had no money or prospects. Looking and sounding authentic was taught at MGM in the thirties to all their B actors. I never voted for him, but I could see how he gained power through his smilingly authentic inauthenticity.

And of course we had Nixon, master of the authentic inauthentic -- who when caught with his hand in the cookie jar dragged out his dog and his pathetic wife in her Republican cloth coat. He growled and groveled like a penned-up bulldog in a shelter; yet he won remarkable victories with his inauthenticity -- the voting rights act came about under his presidency, and so did the opening up to China.

All this is just to say that my vote remains with Hillary -- and I don't give a damn how inauthentic she appears to others. Yes, she has stumbled, but when she picks herself up she gets on with the job. When I look back on my long life and career I realize that I have been helped most by inauthentic people -- people who are capable of changing and I have been harmed only by the truly authentic: those who consider themselves morally superior to others, now and forever while behaving treacherously. Would I prefer a less damaged candidate? Sure I would. But there are none out there as capable of carrying on the progressive tradition capably, and I mean capably, as Hillary Clinton, a woman of experience, good sense, and shining genuine inauthenticity.

Sherman Yellen's memoir of a New York boyhood, "Spotless" will be published in February and will be available through Amazon.