Does anybody really care what Carly Fiorina thinks of Barbara Boxer's hair? Almost certainly not, and yet Californians kicked off the general election campaign this week with a spirited discussion of Fiorina's snarky critique of her rival — she blurted that Boxer's hair was "so yesterday" amid some babble about craving hamburgers and avoiding Sean Hannity. Her comments were captured by a live microphone and then made the rounds: They were front-page news in Friday's New York Times.
As an "oops" moment, it's pretty tame; Fiorina did not utter a profanity ( Dick Cheney once let one of those loose, and more recently Joe Biden, our modern master of the gaffe, was good for one) or kid around about launching a nuclear war ( Ronald Reagan). But pundits quickly spun a debate over whether it revealed something of Fiorina's essence — whether she possesses a mean spirit that reaches back to her days as a Silicon Valley executive and now into her campaign for the U.S. Senate.
Perhaps, but it seems more illustrative of a yearning among journalists — and voters — for moments of authenticity that have become so rare in politics. Driven by money and advertising, campaigns today are scripted and candidates guarded. Office seekers avoid spontaneous contact with constituents; they are shielded by police tape, velvet ropes, handlers and security guards. They stay relentlessly "on message" and, in the process, aloof.