Every politician wears a mask — a face he or she puts in front of the public that is different, if only slightly, from the private self.
A political campaign is the candidate’s effort to persuade the crowd that the mask is the genuine article. It becomes the responsibility of voters to penetrate the deception, and decide whether they can live with both the mask and the real face behind the fakery.
This is where we are in the race for the White House. Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are in the process of being unmasked.
Clinton by WikiLeaks, with perhaps more than a little help from the Russian intelligence community. And Trump by the trail of video and audio musings — often on sexual matters — that he’s deposited over a three-decade career in the spotlight.
Trump’s unmasking arrived in grand fashion, via a plush “Access Hollywood” bus from 2005. By contrast, Clinton’s has become the drip-drip-drip of thousands of purloined emails released day after day.
Trump supporters accuse the media of ignoring revelations about Clinton and her campaign, but they may be confusing neglect with caution.
By and large, journalists aren’t bothered by the fact that hacked emails are stolen property. But questions about authenticity and worries about being spoon-fed partial information — possibly through a Russian filter — do give one pause.
That said, we now know many things about the former secretary of state that we didn’t before:
- Like George H.W. Bush before her, and unlike Barack Obama or husband Bill, Hillary Clinton has a problem with “the vision thing.” “Do we have any sense from her what she believes or wants her core message to be?” asked Clinton adviser Joel Benenson, a month before her campaign was launched.
- She admits that her reflex is to close up like a clam. “I’m trying to let people into my life,” Clinton said, according to the transcript of an off-record interview with a New York Times journalist. “I’m trying to relate to people. Not relate to them, you know, talk about being a grandmother — talk about, you know, the experiences I had growing up and all that. Talk about my own mother. And in that way, kind of make connections.”
- Ironically, given her junior role in the Senate Watergate hearings of the 1970s, Clinton has a near-Nixonian bent when it comes to the media. Last year, top aide Huma Abedin asked whether the candidate could “survive not answering questions from press” during the first leg of her campaign. (The answer was no, but Clinton avoided press conferences for the first nine months of 2016.)
- As anyone who has followed the scandal over her private email server knows, Clinton has a problem with saying she’s sorry. “Apologies are like her Achilles heel,” wrote one staffer.
- Clinton is far more friendly to Wall Street banks and free trade than she has let on, the emails show. A portion of one of her highly paid speeches to Wall Street interests has been part of the leak.
“If everybody’s watching, you know, all of the backroom discussions and the deals, you know, then people get a little nervous, to say the least. So you need both a public and a private position,” Clinton said in 2013. The leak came up in last week’s debate, prompting an awkward effort to compare herself to Abraham Lincoln.
But the damage was done. The first rule of masks for politicians: Never acknowledge the mask.
Now let’s turn to Trump. Clinton’s WikiLeaks disclosures have required a certain amount of shoe leather to explore. But Trump’s video was metaphor by special delivery:
An unmasked and unseen Donald Trump (accompanied with great enthusiasm by a minor member of the Bush family) narrates his philosophy of women as accessible chattel just as a luxury bus rolls into the picture.
An unmasked Trump calls for a Tic-Tac — just in case — and the bus door swings open. Out steps the masked Trump. Polite, respectable, and — when the actress is pressed — even huggable.
The power of the video, the reason it is so damaging to the New York businessman, is the very fact that you can witness the transformation in real time. The wall between public and politician isn’t there — and then suddenly it is.
Forty-eight hours later, on a debate stage in St. Louis, Anderson Cooper asked the question upon which Trump’s fortunes have turned. Unsolicited kissing and crotch-grabbing are forms of sexual assault, the CNN anchor noted.
‘‘Do you understand that?’’ Cooper asked.
“Locker room talk,” was the essence of Trump’s reply. In other words, that wasn’t the real him. It was another masked man, playing to the audience of one Billy Bush.
‘‘Have you ever done those things?’’
“No, I have not,” Trump eventually said, throwing down the biggest gauntlet since Gary Hart challenged reporters to check out his private life in 1984. It’s too early to put a firm count on the number of women who have raised their hands to claim that they have experienced the real Trump – the unmasked one.
Curiously, the unmasked versions of both Clinton and Trump aren’t too different from the personas they present to their audiences. Sharp edges have been rounded, the most egregious features erased, but the basic outline remains.
It’s just a matter of what face, masked and unmasked, we’re prepared to live with for the next four years.
Happy Halloween, by the way.