“People say believe half of what you see and none of what you hear.”

– Gladys Knight & the Pips, “I Heard It Through The Grapevine,” 1967

“Trust none of what you hear and less of what you see.”

– Bruce Springsteen, “Magic,” 2007

It’s what you’d expect from George W. Bush.

He is, after all, the fellow whose spokesman once fielded questions from a GOP stooge pretending to be a reporter, whose deputy FEMA chief was caught conducting a fake press conference, whose functionaries routinely screen the crowds and pre-select the questioners at public events lest, God forbid, some ordinary citizen ask the president of the United States a tough question.

So yeah, this was precisely what you’d expect W. to do. Thing is, he didn’t do it.

Rather, it was Hillary Clinton whose campaign admitted last week that it planted a question at a campaign stop in Iowa. It seems a college student was approached by a Clinton staffer and asked to ask the candidate about global warming. The young woman asked the requested question, but she also told people about it and the news, as news is wont to do, got out.

Clinton’s rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination clucked pious reproach, but campaign reporters tell us it is actually standard procedure nowadays for campaigns to plant friendly questions.

And surely the cheap plastic artificiality of the age is established beyond question when even the run for the nation’s highest office becomes a CGI effect. The acronym is for computer generated imagery, the digital wizardry in the movies that allows Spider-Man to swing convincingly through the canyons of New York City and Titanic to sink realistically in ice bound seas.

“Forrest Gump” was a groundbreaker in the use of CGI, what with rendering Lt. Dan a double amputee and putting Forrest in the Oval Office, complaining to John F. Kennedy that he had to pee. But many of its effects were less obvious: birds flying out of a cornfield; a reflection in a lake; the lighting of the sky. There, CGI was invisible; you didn’t know sleight of hand was involved unless the filmmakers chose to tell you.

Politics has become much the same. Yes, it was always a con job: the candidate always backlit against the American flag, gazing soulfully into the distance, his opponent always a greasy sleaze who would, if elected, bulldoze the senior center and put up a Hooters in its place. But it was once easier for a reasonably intelligent observer to know when he or she was being conned. As fakery becomes more sophisticated and ubiquitous, knowing becomes more difficult. Maybe even impossible.

The quotes juxtaposed above describe the arc some of us have traveled as a result: from healthy skepticism to whatever lies beyond skepticism. It is telling that the most potent political insurgencies of recent years – H. Ross Perot in 1992, John McCain in 2000, Barack Obama, now – have all had in common one trait: perceived authenticity, a sense that they spoke not from polls and position papers, but from conviction. Maybe it’s also telling that Perot and McCain lost and that Obama trails Clinton in national polls.

Maybe we like being fooled. Maybe we are, at some level, complicit in our own conning. If people can be dazzled and duped into choosing a given soft drink or antacid, maybe it’s no surprise they can be induced to choose a future in much the same way.

The problem is, next year’s election will be the most crucial in a generation. The next president will have to repair the massive damage – social, environmental, geopolitical – wrought by the current one. So we need and deserve to know how these would-be presidents propose to do this. Instead we get flim-flam, the old okey-doke, carnival barkers and special effects. Politics as CGI.

But the danger is real. God help us if the next president is not.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His e-mail address is: [email protected]

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