Real People


Boston. -- When this is all over, I'm going to miss Marisa Hall. What the heck, I'm going to miss Denton Walthall and Martha MacCormack and Don Jackson and John Donovan.

I'm going to miss the entire cast of voters who did their political jury duty during the debate marathon. The folks who asked the candidates those questions in Virginia. The folks who were enlisted on focus groups for PBS and CNN. The ones who were drafted as token undecideds for ABC or NBC.

As each one spoke into the microphones of assorted broadcasters, it occurred to me that they had become part and parcel of the first Real People campaign. They were added to the burgeoning list of publicly certified Real People.

Real people? Sometime in the last few elections, we stopped talking average voters. It seems that nobody wants to be a mathematical mean in this Lake Wobegon of a country where all the children are expected to be above average. Nowadays, hardly anyone running for office refers to constituents as ordinary people. The word ordinary has become a synonym for dull.

Nor does anyone wax lyrically today about the little people of America. The venerable notion of the common people has become both uncommon and unpopular. Even talking about Joe Sixpack is seen as talking down to Joe Sixpack. Not to mention his wife.

At the same time, we became so subdivided and targeted by class, race, gender, region and ZIP code that it was hard to find a single word that applied to everyperson or even every registered voter. So we have opted for "real people."

The candidates know it. At every opportunity during this long campaign, Bill Clinton has talked about his program as "rooted in the real lives of real people." In his convention speech, President Bush said, "We are the party of the real people." At each TV teach-in, Ross Perot insisted that he got in the race because people -- real people -- put him in it.

For the most part, we seem to be using "real people" to separate the political outsiders from political insiders. Real People are the outsiders in this campaign.

Real People do not belong to the closed circle of politicians, pollsters, political scientists and media analysts who circumscribe the common wisdom. Real People do not say, "That will drive his negatives up." Real People do not turn off the television debates and tell each other, "Ross Perot launched a torpedo at George Bush, who failed to hit one out of the ballpark but did show he'd go the 15 rounds."

The fact that we look to Real People, that we prefer the questions they ask and the answers they give, that we find them trustworthy, is surely connected to our growing suspicion about experts. We have turned away from a passion for expertise to a search for authenticity. A desire to find the real thing.

This search started long before this campaign or even the Coke commercials. It began when people grew cynical about actors selling products and the advertisers moved on to such characters as Frank Perdue, Lee Iacocca and Victor Kiam. Today, advertisers in pursuit of the patina of authenticity, shoot commercials as if they were documentaries or home videos.

The political ads, too, have changed from Ronald Reagan's morning in America to George Bush's cinema verite. The year's most effective Bush ad employs a purposely jerky camera filming Real People as they question Mr. Clinton's trustworthiness.

At their worst, these ads' imitation of authenticity can breed a new level of cynicism. Some of it reminds me of the salesman's answer when he was asked for the secret of his success. "Sincerity," he answered: "If you can fake that, you can fake anything."

As a trend, the shelf life of Real People may be fairly short. The spotlight can turn the fresh face into the famous and therefore vTC the dubious. Turn a camera on and any certified political outsider can become an insider.

But so far, the un-star-studded cast of Real People at debates and on television have become our hit parade. Something refreshing has happened. Mark it down in your datebook. In the campaign of 1992, real people were the real thing.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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