Content May 2008

Only Connect

The digital age demands that political candidates be authentic and accessible. But please—hold the carrots.
From the archives:

"Inside the Clinton Shake-Up" (February 2008)
How Hillary's campaign managed itself into a ditch—and how it might get itself out. By Joshua Green

Really, who comes up with this nonsense? Sure, we all know that this is the “YouTube election.” The Web has replaced TV, and e-mail has replaced direct mail, as the current modes of wholesale campaigning. Hillary’s tone-deafness has been well explored and mocked, but her comprehensive misapprehension of how rapidly mutating media alter the way people communicate has not. The digital living room she was once going to fill with listening and sharing as she cakewalked to the nomination has become an altogether more dissonant gathering place. Thanks to some sort of undead-like invincibility, she is surviving, but certainly not to have the sort of chummy conversation she envisioned in those innocent fall e-mails. Like watching Nixon sweat on television in 1960, to read Hillary’s e-mail today is to experience an old dispensation crashing headlong into the new. Clearly, someone at Hillary HQ—or, more likely, a highly paid consultant—spent serious time building a multiplatform, interactive strategy to swathe the electorate in the marital faux-togetherness of Bill and Hillary running for office. Someone thought, Hey, let’s really connect with the public and let them in on what it’s truly like to be a candidate for president in 2008, dangle in front of them like a big pepperoni pizza the prospect of intimacy with a past and possibly future world leader.

There’s a serious point here. For all the focus on position papers, and process, and even likability, what gets lost is that elections are ultimately about making connections; about showing the largest number of voters that you care about them; about, as they say in my world, relatability. Relatability is a function of discourse, which requires the candidate to speak in the vernacular of the moment. And what the era of YouTube and social media prizes is authenticity, improvisation, rough edges. Whether these values are genuinely held or brilliantly mimicked is immaterial. You have to bring the realness.

John McCain and Barack Obama turn out to be fantastic at realness; each offers up a kind of linguistic meta­narrative that says—screams—“I am not a politician,” or at least, “I’m not only a politician.” Obama’s admission in his 1995 autobiography that he did “a little blow” as a teenager may in retrospect have been his most brilliant campaign gambit, one that makes him of this moment (confessional, flawed, post-Boomer, ultimately untouchable on questions of honesty because he already admitted to something no candidate has ever admitted to before) the way Bill Clinton’s “I didn’t inhale” nonadmission (Boomerish, entitled, prone to sanctimonious deployments of situational ethics) made him quintessentially of his. Authenticity now is more coded, in the sense that the politician needs to have an intuitive understanding of how to converse, what to concede, what to hide, and what the Web hive will and will not validate.

As we contemplate Hillary’s persistent outré-ness, it’s worth dwelling on the ways in which she so misunderstood this moment. She is a politician who can never get out of the way of her politicianness; even her efforts to recast her campaign as a “conversation” reeked of politician. Last summer, the Clintons’ YouTube quasi-parody of the Sopranos finale initially seemed audacious, a witty surfacing of the repressed subtext of the couple’s Mob-dynastic ambitions and less-than-fully-intact marital status, until it devolved to more shtick about Bill’s diet. Perhaps the Clintons didn’t get their own joke? The campaign proceeded to become more and more obtuse about the Bill-Hillary dynamic until the subtext—was Bill undermining his wife’s candidacy?—drowned out the official text. Despite those grasping and un-fun appearances on The Daily Show and Saturday Night Live (required stops on the political self-flagellation circuit), it remains hard to find the human being inside, to break through Hillary’s carefully wrought positional scrim.

Watch the Clintons's Sopranos parody

The word conversation implies at least some form of interactivity. But as Frank Rich has pointed out repeatedly and hilariously, Hillary’s spontaneous interactions with the public have all the improvisational élan of a Fortune 500 earnings call. On her Web chats, the viewer questions might as well be submitted by voter­bots. Hillary answers in fully formed paragraphs that double as nonnarcotic sedatives.

The numbing perfection of Hillary’s self-ideation makes you hate her even when you like her. Who can read the teaser for another YouTube video without throwing up a little inside his mouth?: “She’ll never stop fighting for those who fight for us, and give voice to those who have none.” Never? Even when she’s busy giving Americans the health-care choices they deserve and need?

Presented by

Michael Hirschorn is an Atlantic contributing editor.

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