Only Connect

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

Illustration by Richard Thompson

"Let’s do lunch,” Hillary Clinton e-mailed me on Tuesday, September 4, at 11:18 a.m. For a narcissistic moment, I thought maybe she actually wanted to get together and was using a circa-1989 coinage (one that had slipped well past ironic-referential mode by 1994, roughly to where “That’s how I roll” is today) as some kind of inside joke. We had, after all, met for about 30 seconds at a company-sponsored fund-raiser not long before, where my co-workers and I had been asked to wait in a long line in order to have a quick interchange with the candidate and then a grip-and-grin. We had snobbishly refused to get in line but then thought, Why not? Maybe we can say one day that we met her. It was … brief. “Let’s talk, you and me—about whatever you’d like,” her e-mail went on, as if she were continuing our conversation. “Our hopes. Our goals. Our work. The weather. Maybe even politics.” Then the clincher: “I think it would be fun to have you over for lunch, at my table, in my home in Washington.”


On Thursday, September 6, at 11:19 a.m., Bill Clinton sent me a follow-up note. Apparently his wife had filled him in on the impending festivities. “Dear Michael,” he wrote, “I hear you might be having lunch with Hillary—do you mind if I drop in?” Wha-hey! This was turning out to be quite a party.

Turned out that might was the operative word. Only one supporter would be invited, along with a friend, and you had to donate to her campaign by midnight Friday to qualify. I declined. But Bill and I were getting quite chummy. On September 25, at 11:20 a.m., Bill got in touch again: “You, me, a TV, and a bowl of chips.” The intimacy was making me sweat slightly. “There are two things in this world that I love more than anything else,” he confided, “my family and politics. So you can imagine just how fired up I get when Hillary is on the stage debating the issues that matter to our country.” I know, it’s almost sexual. Bill was passing along the good news that three lucky Hillary supporters would be invited, each with a guest, to watch an upcoming debate. “We’ll sit down in front of a big TV with a big bowl of chips, watch the debate, and talk about the race.”

I didn’t want to offend Bill, but what with his recent heart problems, maybe “a big bowl of chips” was not exactly what the doctor ordered. Hillary shared my concern, bless her heart, even in the middle of a heated primary campaign. Two days later, September 27, at 10:48 a.m., she couldn’t contain herself any longer. “Dear Michael,” she wrote, urgency clearly visible between the lines. “I hear you might be watching a debate with Bill.” Indeed, I might be. “Can I ask you a favor? Bill mentioned ‘a big bowl of chips’ in the email he sent you Tuesday. If you are one of the three people who get the chance to join him, can you make sure he eats carrots, not chips?”

It turns out that Glenda, Clare, and David were the three lucky winners of the “bowl of chips” offer from Bill, as he helpfully informed me on November 6, at 2:16 p.m., in an e-mail titled “Glenda, Clare, and David” (Bill must’ve slept in—these e-mails were coming later now). He even sent along a link to a video of him and Glenda, Clare, and David watching Hillary debate. The video showed that there was more than just chips and carrots on offer, lovingly panning over peppers, pretzel sticks, and other evidence of a well-appointed spread. “Pizza!” Bill exclaimed as he walked in. And I was able to learn that Bill subsequently ate both chips (with dip!) and carrots as he watched his wife on the flat-screen TV. According to everyone in attendance, she did a great job. Bill helpfully pointed out to Glenda, Clare, and David how she countered but did not attack, and effused that the country was really looking for solutions, not empty rhetoric. After the debate, Hillary called in, and Bill put David on the phone. Since we all know that she worries, he made sure to tell her that he had gotten Bill to eat some carrots after all.

Watch Bill Clinton enjoying refreshments with Glenda, Clare, and David

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?

We understand intuitively why this discourse comes off as so wooden, so content-less, even in its relentless gravitas, but why is it so off-putting now? The answer has to do with how digital culture has made us all skeptics, all Swift Boaters. There is not one affectation, one biographical detail, that now can survive the relentless interrogation of bloggers, oppo researchers, amateur videographers, data miners. This digital Panopticon has in turn bred a culture of preemptive self-revelation, a race to bare body and essence: Hey, I did a little blow!

From the archives:

"The Peril of Obama" (April 2008)
The glamour of Obama may be hard to resist, but could it get the country into trouble if he wins the presidency? By Virginia Postrel

Obama’s weaknesses may lie in the realm of substance and experience, but his self-revelatory style has so far served to obfuscate these potential problems. Paradoxically for a generational totem, his speeches are overtly retro, harking back to FDR and Reagan. But in interviews, he speaks in English, as an actual smart person might in normal conversation. Can you imagine Hillary saying anything as introspective, sophisticated about racial identity, and in its own way daring, as what Barack recently told Vanity Fair? “You know,” he said, referring to his high-school basketball career in Hawaii, “I had an overtly black game, behind-the-back passes, and wasn’t particularly concerned about fundamentals, whereas our coach was this Bobby Knight guy, and he was all about fundamentals—you know, bounce passes, and four passes before you shoot, and that sort of thing.” That such a comment, which 15 years ago might have caused real controversy, went without notice is evidence of how Obama’s seeming artlessness has at least temporarily reconfigured the traditional gotcha relationship between candidate and press. There’s nothing to reveal when the candidate ingeniously seems to be revealing everything. His Web site, like McCain’s, is noticeably free of feigned closeness. Meanwhile, McCain’s temper, his erratic qualities, his politically incorrect jokes (even that lame Beach Boys “Bomb Iran” crack), his forthright, often combative speeches, suddenly make him more authentic, more now, more Greatest Generation 2.0. McCain understood this new culture of authenticity intuitively even during the 2000 election, when he branded his campaign the “Straight Talk Express.” In this endlessly mediated age, even authenticity is a form of branding. Indeed, precisely because we live in an era of endlessly manipulable images, authenticity is the most truly prized brand attribute. But McCain, 100 percent authentic or not, has compellingly sold realness, and may do so all the way to the White House.

This is why an Obama-McCain match-up would be the most engrossing in recent memory: not only an opportunity to see two master communicators go at each other but a chance to alter political discourse for good. The old political speech has started sounding so canned that we literally cannot hear it. I could listen to Hillary all day without really understanding a word she says. It’s not just the unearned intimacy; it’s the way everything seems manipulated and focus-tested by teams of professionals to the point where it becomes a kind of elision, a non-speak.

In early March, Obama sent me an e-mail. It presumed no intimacy. It was titled “Will you make a call for me?” And it asked me to call six people, and, if needed, employ a script that I could access on his Web site. The theme of the e-mail was “connection,” and the idea behind it was that voters would be swayed more by hearing from their fellow voters than from the candidate directly. “The most extraordinary things happen at the personal level, when you can make that personal connection to a voter and discover that you share a common vision of what ought to be,” the e-mail read. “Make a call and make that connection today.” In its frank way, the strategy recalled the chain letters we received as kids, but it also got to the heart of what a digital-era campaign could be: honest about its agenda, distributed, connected. A conversation, even.