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.
In such an environment of cloister, unscripted asides become overvalued. They offer glimpses of a candidate that are more genuine, if not always more insightful, than the candidate's views on taxes or abortion or climate change. That's too bad, of course, but perhaps inevitable. Indeed, one delicious aspect of the Fiorina episode is that candidates who use their resources to shield themselves from scrutiny, those who rely on television ads and avoid the risks of spontaneity, are those who create the greatest craving for authenticity. Candidates such as Fiorina.