- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 1, 2000

Name recognition ain't what it used to be. In a world of instant communication, revelation and speculation, the gilt of recognition quickly tarnishes. The glitter doesn't last.

The two candidates with the best name recognition, veterans who have been in the spotlight for a decade or more, are sinking in the polls. Something beneath the surface of their public persona bothers voters.

Hillary Clinton and Al Gore are different in many ways, but they share a common trait. They change their images to fit what they think the moment expects of them. They learned that technique from Bill, but without his easy adaptability and his con man's ability to let nothing rattle him.

First, the first lady. She's been unable to get above 46 percent in the polls in New York. That was true when she was running against Rudolph Giuliani and it was true two weeks later after the mayor dropped out and Rep. Rick Lazio jumped in.

The carpetbagger issue drags on Hillary's campaign, but it's not seminal so much as symptomatic. Hillary pretends to be who she isn't. When she first became first lady the reporters had great fun with her makeovers, her changing hair styles, her outfits of the day. Most women (if not men) chalked that up to a problem of style. But it's actually a problem of substance. Donning a New York Yankees cap was like another hairdo, a reach for an image that didn't fit.

When Rick Lazio entered the race, her campaign tried to demonize him as a reincarnation of Newt Gingrich. That description was quickly exposed as silly more than nasty. New Yorkers aren't provincials. Without an opponent with Rudy's negatives, Hillary has gone into yet another makeover, what the New York Observer calls "The Blanding of Mrs. C: Team Hillary Prepares for Fall Inoffensive."

The woman who had been a lightning rod turned into a firefly. The dominant adjective her handlers aim for is nice: humility over chutzpah, tenderness over toughness, sensitivity over severity. You might say they want to eviscerate Evita.

Al Gore, on the other hand, has taken his transformation in the other direction. The straight-arrow son, father and senator changed as vice president. He earned a reputation for being ruthless, a pol who would do anything to win. A large majority of men, according to the polls, don't trust him. Now George W. is taking his women. All this is subject to change, of course, but the vice president has squandered the quality that contrasted him to Bill Clinton. We thought him to be instinctively honorable: What you saw was who he was.

That was before he went to the Buddhist temple for "community outreach." Like Hillary, he subjected himself to a fashion change. Clothes do not make the man, but they can sure unmake him. Better to look stiff in a suit and tie than phony in tight jeans and boots. Soon he sounded out of tune in his earth tones.

Both Hillary Clinton and Al Gore are very smart. They've been on the political scene in one way or another for a long time. But unlike their mentor Bill, they don't look like they enjoy the calculated life. Politics is what they must endure to get power.

The president, by comparison, is a natural dissimulator a natural politician, a natural womanizer, a natural liar, and a natural fun-lover. He's inside his skin like a method actor, no matter what the script. Hillary and Al are stuck with delivering flat lines in a script that doesn't play to their strengths. They sound synthetic, unable to fake sincerity.

If we could reduce to one word what Americans are looking for in this election season, it would be authenticity, the yearning that what we see is the real McCoy.

It's a long, long way to November, but it's not too soon for Al and Hillary to take note of Oscar Wilde's witty perception of humankind that exquisitely captures the essence of the pol: "It is only the superficial qualities that last. Man's deeper nature is soon found out."

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