On Hillary Clinton’s authenticity

parry-giles fullShawn J. Parry-Giles is a professor of communication and director of the Center for Political Communication and Civic Leadership at the University of Maryland. Her UIP book Hillary Clinton in the News: Gender and Authenticity in American Politics basically predicted a huge chunk of the 2016 campaign season. Our Q&A with Parry-Giles delved into the persistent critique of Clinton’s so-called authenticity:

Q: How do you define “authenticity” and its role in the political process?

Shawn J. Parry-Giles: The assumption of many involved in politics is that the political image is contrived. The process often begins with political leaders and candidates trying to put forth their own political image. Opponents and the news media often assume the responsibility of interrogating the candidate’s image in order to identify the candidate’s true self. The goal is to try to identify contradictions in the candidate’s image to discern the fake from the real. Evidence of such contradictions can become a means by which to discredit a political leader and his or her candidacy. It can expose those who are perceived to be political opportunists rather than leaders seeking to promote the well-being of constituents. Questions of authenticity thus are often associated with trying to identify the “real” or “genuine” person and their true political beliefs.

Many political leaders are judged as inauthentic in large measure because of the criteria used to evaluate such matters. Those who change their views on issues are often judged as inauthentic because of their inconsistency on issues. Those who change their physical appearance are judged as inauthentic because it offers evidence of the image-making process at work. Those who go along with popular opinion are seen as inauthentic political opportunists. Those who try to draw connections with geographical areas or sports teams far removed from their early life experiences are often viewed as inauthentic. Such criteria make it really hard to be viewed as authentic, challenging the utility of such political judgments.

Authenticity anxieties are visible as far back as ancient Greece. Such anxieties also worried the founders of the United States. The founding leaders, too, sought genuine political leaders to guide and shape the new nation. These authenticity worries occupy a tremendous amount of attention during political campaigns in particular. How the news media make judgments about a person’s authenticity deserves further discussion. Once a person is judged as inauthentic, it becomes nearly impossible to change such images. Just ask Mitt Romney. As one political commentator said of Romney, his “inauthenticity” represents his “authenticity.” Are these judgments beneficial or harmful to the political process?

Q: Why do you think charges of inauthenticity have been particularly directed at Hilary Clinton and why are they so potent?

Parry-Giles: Hillary Clinton was judged as inauthentic on most of the criteria identified above: she was shown to waver on particular issues (e.g., her changing support for the U.S. war in Iraq); she was shown to change her public image (e.g., her changing roles as first lady—outspoken feminist versus traditional hostess); she was often portrayed as a political opportunist who changed her views to reflect public opinion (her opposition to the war in Iraq after she entered the 2008 Democratic presidential primary); she was challenged for pursuing a U.S. Senate seat from a state she had never lived or worked (and for saying she had been a Yankee fan her entire life).

Q: What was the initial image of Hillary Clinton construed by the media?

Parry-Giles: Hillary Clinton’s initial image was that of a feminist. This image derived largely from two different media moments in the spring of 1992 where she claimed she was no “Tammy Wynette,” “standing by my man” and that she chose not to stay home and bake “cookies” and have “teas.” Whenever Clinton deviated from such images, she was often dubbed as inauthentic.

Q: Did the news media coverage differ as Clinton pursued different roles?

Parry-Giles: The news coverage tended to be most contentious during the political campaign years—Bill Clinton’s presidential campaigns and her own political campaigns. The coverage was also most divisive during the health care debate of 1993-1995. The controversy waned when she performed the first lady role in more traditional ways. It also was less combative once she was elected to the Senate or serving in the role as Secretary of State.

A language of violence and war commonly appeared when she became involved in the health care debates as first lady and when she entered her own political campaigns in 2000 and 2008. That politics and the legislative process is often depicted as a war or a violent sports competition with clear winners and losers offers insight into a current political divide where compromise often seems unimaginable.

Q: How do you think the media’s framing devices will affect Clinton if she runs for the 2016 presidential election?

Parry-Giles: If Clinton enters the 2016 presidential race, the incendiary coverage will return. With the exception of the events in Benghazi, Clinton’s news coverage as Secretary of State was more positive. She was even reviewed favorably by Republicans during the 2012 presidential campaign (when compared to candidate Obama). Yet, once she steps back into the political arena, such positive regard will dissipate. Senator Rand Paul is suggesting that Clinton lacks the character to be president because her husband is a “sexual predator” based on his actions with Monica Lewinsky. Benghazi is used as evidence of her lapse of judgment as Secretary of State—lapses of judgment some claim she is seeking to cover up.  The images from 1992 will reappear as a means to suggest that she is an inauthentic political leader who is nothing more than a political opportunist who has had her eye on the presidency from the moment that she and her husband stepped on the national political stage as co-presidents.