Overscripted?

When an actor learns her lines, she concentrates on how best to deliver the playwright's words. The best actors deliver seamless performances in which there is a harmony between what they say, what they do, and the emotion they convey to the audience. "Authentic" might be a term to describe such a successful performance. "Stilted" might describe its opposite.

One thing that an accomplished actor will never, ever do is blurt out to the audience the stage directions that often appear between the lines of the script. You know, like the famous stage direction in Shakespeare's play, "The Winter's Tale": "Exit, pursued by a bear." The stage direction is a physical cue to the actor and the director; it is not a message intended for the audience.

But occasionally, actors - including public officials - flub their lines, get lost in their message, and mistake the cue for the content. One of the most amusing mistakes along these lines occurred during the 1992 presidential campaign. President George H.W. Bush was delivering a speech in January 1992 in Exeter, New Hampshire. The economy was still experiencing a mild recession, and the President was seen as insufficiently aware of the pain felt by many Americans.

Remember that this was the same George H.W. Bush who was earlier ridiculed by then Texas Governor Ann Richards, who said about Vice President Bush at the 1988 Democratic Convention: "Poor George, he can't help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth." Unfortunately, that quip was revived when President Bush spoke in Exeter. While trying to project a more engaged persona, he actually made the mistake of confusing what amounted to a stage direction on his cue card with a substantive talking point. He blurted out to the New Hampshire audience and the press corps, "Message: I care."

The damage was obvious. If someone has to script you to say that you care, then the message conveyed is the precise opposite: you don't. President Bush was subsequently criticized by his opponent, Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton, for seeming out of touch and indifferent to the concerns of average Americans. Bush really wasn't indifferent, but his "Message: I care" flub set the stage for subsequent mistakes that only reinforced the criticism: he was late to visit Los Angeles after the Rodney King riots; projected indifference during the October 15, 1992, Richmond, Virginia, debate where he looked longingly at his wristwatch ("won't this ever end?"); and professed ignorance about how a supermarket checkout scanner worked.

Now we come to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who faces similar challenges to those of the former Republican president. Her shifting, unpersuasive, and just plain inaccurate explanations for use of a private e-mail server - along with more than 20 years of Clinton-related foibles and partial truths - have generated negative press stories, reduced her poll standings in Democratic primary states, raised her unfavorable numbers, and caused a majority of Americans to consider her untrustworthy.

To counter this alarming trend, the Clinton campaign decided to cooperate with a September 7, 2015, "New York Times" story to the effect that the former Secretary of State will now project a different image. Amy Chozick wrote the story: "Hillary Clinton to Show More Humor and Heart, Aides Say." Chozick's article was based on "extensive interviews" with Clinton aides who said that "[t]hey want to show her humor. The self-effacing kind.... They want to show her heart."

It gets better. "Previous attempts to introduce Mrs. Clinton's softer side to voters have backfired amid criticism that the efforts seemed overly poll tested," writes Ms. Chozick. And then eight paragraphs later, we find this sentence: "Mrs. Clinton will still invoke the joy brought into her life by her granddaughter, Charlotte, but, given the child's obvious advantages and privilege, will speak more broadly about building a better future for all Americans' children and grandchildren."

Message: I'm joyfully poll-tested.

Interestingly, the first criticism came not from Republicans but rather from her fellow Democrats. Former Obama adviser David Alexrod criticized her "humor and heart" story with a tweet to the effect that she should "just do it" and not talk about it so self-consciously.

When the stage directions become the story, you know you have a problem. One of the reasons that Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders continue to attract large crowds, notwithstanding their outlier positions, is that they appear like genuine people who know who they are and what they think. You may not like the personality or the views they project, but at least you get the sense that they are not the products of scripted talking points. This factor also explains the growing enthusiasm many Democrats have for Vice President Joe Biden: he is who he is, gaffes and all.

At this stage in the 2016 presidential campaign, much of the country feels estranged from both political parties' establishments. They are unhappy with Washington's status quo. For that reason, they are giving buoyancy to new voices and new perspectives. This phenomenon is unlikely to go away, and for those candidates in both parties who believe that they can be "handled" or "scripted" by experts, pollsters, and communications professionals into winning the presidency, they are pursuing a flawed strategy. These candidates are likely to receive an unwanted but simple message from the American voters who want new approaches.

Message: you lose.

Charles Kolb served as Deputy Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy from 1990-1992 in the George H. W. Bush White House. He was president of the French-American Foundation - United States from 2012-2014 and president of the Committee for Economic Development from 1997-2012.