"Let McCain be McCain," is the campaign mantra. His greatest appeal is when people get a sense of how authentic he is, says Senior advisor Mark Salter. Sounds right. We value authentic individuality. It's part of our national DNA -- which is why Sen. McCain has been so front-and-center all these years. He's nailed authentic -- and it isn't enough.
This may jar some purest sensibilities, but running a national campaign is theater, not documentary. It's a dramatic narrative complete with stars, supporting players, villains, effective settings, and plenty of friction to keep the audience interested for many months. And it is live, which makes it unpredictable. When someone goes off script and says something dumb, campaigns work hard to get the audience back to their master narrative -- McCain as the experienced one, Obama as the change agent. If you go off script too many times, you lose control and the other side starts re-writing your narrative and it isn't flattering.
We all are guilty of dumb-speak. This seems to be the first national election in memory where the bulk of stories are about the dumb things OTHERS say, rather than the candidates themselves -- Reverends Wright, Hagee and Jackson, Ferraro, Clinton, Fiorino, Graham and, undoubtedly, more to come.
Sure, we can blame the 24/7 news media but that's like blaming dogs for sniffing stinky things. It's what they do. Like it or not, the news media is part of our election selection process. It's the candidates, and their surrogates, who bear responsibility for saying dumb things. Sitting in front of a Fox News microphone and thinking your words are confidential says more about Jackson than Fox.
Which brings us back to authenticity. Whenever we present ourselves to the public in politics, or business, we are told, "Just be yourself and you'll be fine." Right, but which self are we talking about -- parental, worker, leader, friend, or lover self? Look what 'being yourself' got Jesse Jackson. Senator McCain is auditioning for leader of the free world and that requires a different and additional presentation self.
If you put together a casting-call for the part of president, it might read, '.....must show calm and re-assuring patience in the midst of chaos........has the ability to recruit and manage divergent people and ideas.....must project stability.........needs high level of control and discipline in an undisciplined world.' Patience, stability, control, discipline means sticking to the script and the campaign's master narrative.
McCain likes the town-hall format. It allows him to banter with the audience, which leads to improvising, which means going off script, which continues to get him in trouble. Presidents must think on their feet, sure, but always within the context of a structure, plan and execution. The Senator might think his quick wit and straight talking self is his primary sell. It was, but it isn't now. Closing the sale for President requires control, a disciplined self, the same control and discipline that got him through five horrendous years in a Vietnam prison camp.
If he wants to do town-hall venues, he might consider a tactic from Richard Nixon's 1968 campaign that relied a lot on town-hall formats. Nixon never went off script. It didn't matter what, or how, a question was asked, Nixon had a complete and well-prepared answer, delivered as if he were saying it for the first time. Effective campaigners understand performance is part of the job. They understand that selling yourself and your programs is policy-as-theater with well thought-out words, delivery and actions. Authenticity gets you the part of candidate. Control and discipline, gets you the presidency.