America’s Longing for Authenticity

From a Wall Street Journal column by Peggy Noonan headlined “America’s Longing for Authenticity”:

This is about how we present ourselves and our thoughts these days.

On Wednesday Nikki Haley announced her presidential campaign in Charleston, S.C. I found myself thinking not about her candidacy but about the launch itself, which was creepily stuck in the past. A horrible, blaring song from a Sylvester Stallone sequel pumped her in as she strode out in the white suit and there were adoring fans on the rafters behind her, with whom she briefly interacted before turning toward the audience and doing the point—standing there and pointing to individual members of the cheering audience as if she knew them and was being natural. An introducer said she will “lead us into the future”; she added, “America is falling behind.” It was all so tired, clichéd, and phony. It was national politics as it has been done circa 1990-2023.

Why did she do it this way? It’s not good enough to say everyone does it this way. Someone needs to make it new, to drill down into deeper meaning. As the first Republican to enter the race and challenge Donald Trump, she was in a position to do something at least nonidiotic. This seemed a decision not to.

She is an intelligent, attractive person with a good record—strong two-term South Carolina governor, presentable United Nations ambassador. Diplomats who served with her speak highly of her off the record. She navigated the Trump era smoothly if somewhat weirdly.

In her speech she said some nice things: “Take it from me, the first female minority governor in history: America is not a racist country.” Everyone who scrambles over our border knows that; it is good when elites say it.

But I really don’t like it when people brag that they’re “tough as nails.” It may be true, but it’s embarrassing when men and women talk this way, and it doesn’t convey strength. Tough people don’t go on about it; they just smile and crush you like a bug. “I’ve been shaking up the status quo my entire life.” Why do they do this? Why can’t anyone running for office be modest anymore? That is an honest question.

She said something that can’t be said enough: “We’ve lost the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections.” Preach, sister. “We have failed to win the confidence of a majority of Americans.”

But—closing point—Ms. Haley, later that night on “Hannity,” said the answer is for the Republican Party to talk in a way that “brings people in.” This was the language of the famous GOP “autopsy” in 2013: The GOP must do a better job “messaging.” But what does that even mean? That there are magic words and they must find them? There are no magic words.

This is communicating about the need to communicate. It is empty, circular, goes nowhere. The only thing in politics is strong, clear, honest stands on issues of great import. The American people know what they are, and declare them every four years.

Connected to this, the second part of our column, on last weekend’s Super Bowl ads. What do we discern from them about how the nation’s ad makers see their country? That we’re a nation of morons, a people with fractured concentration, a people with no ability to follow even a 60-second spot, a people who need loud noises and obsess on media and respond only to movie stars playing movie stars spoofing movie stars. The feeling was one of exhaustion, of a culture folding in on itself.

I have been watching these ads closely for 40 years, for fun but also to hear the inner dialogue, the sound of a nation talking to itself as it sells things to itself, which, in America, has always been about as intimate an act as there is. You remember them. Joe Greene throwing the kid the jersey in heart-on-your-sleeve 1979, “Wassup” in merry 2000, the farmer who raised the Budweiser Clydesdale and let him go only to see him again, in 2013.

This year’s ads were jittery, rather cruel and cynical—Super Bowl ads for a nation of losers.

There were a few sweet moments—the new dog in the plastic kennel, the young couple at home and she’s on the phone on hold and they comically begin to dance to the canned music. But one spot said it all. Google Pixel offered 22 seconds of serenity and honest sentiment, and then the music shifted, screamed, and the mood became discordance.

The ad makers must have asked themselves: What does America want? And answered: dumb, loud, depthless and broken. I’m here to say I’ve met America and that’s not what they want. What they want is “Help me live, help my kids live, help me feel something true.”

To those who made the commercials and pay for them: Advertising is a great and honorable craft, at its best even an art. But you can’t do it well if you have no regard for and barely even know your audience, which is your country. Why don’t you go into another line of work? Why not go to a nonprofit and dislike America from there? Or go into politics.

Finally, the Academy Awards are next month. At the Oscar lunch this week the Academy made clear it wasn’t over the Will Smith slap. Good. It was a big moment. The head of the Academy said its response had been inadequate. It was.

Here is how to turn that moment into something helpful. It doesn’t involve “image rehab.” It involves constructive honesty. Will Smith should walk in and say this:

“It is painful in life when you embarrass yourself. It is horrifying when you do it in front of tens of millions of people. Last year I did something bad to a guy who was just doing his job, and I am here to acknowledge it from the same stage—to admit that in attempting to humiliate him, I humiliated myself. I showed a number of things, including sheer bad judgment.

“I volunteered to be here tonight, I wasn’t asked. I formally apologize to Chris Rock, who did nothing to deserve my actions, and to all of you. As a public figure, I delivered exactly the wrong message and put forward exactly the wrong example. What we do in public matters, especially for the young. If we smoke, they’ll think it’s cool to smoke. If we use bullets and guns, they’ll be inspired to go in that direction. We all know this. I knew it in the abstract. I forgot it—unforgettably!—in the particular.

“And I’m sorry. I have paid a high price the past year in opportunities and relationships. I can’t say this was unjust. I will never speak of it again. Chris is free to, but I’ve said my piece. I’m going to continue to work on myself, and I ask you, as I close, not to applaud, if you were going to. After all the furor, let’s end it quietly and with thought. Thank you.”

Then cut straight to commercial. A peaceful, calm one with a little heart. And then come back and continue the show.

Peggy Noonan is an opinion columnist at the Wall Street Journal where her column, “Declarations,” has run since 2000. She was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 2017.

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