Barack Obama and the case for charisma
Charisma is more than a way with words and an attractive face. It's about inspiring America to greatness again.
Los Angeles; and Cambridge, Mass.
Among this season's presidential candidates, Barack Obama has clearly had the edge when it comes to that magical quality known as charisma. Pundits of every political stripe have commented on Senator Obama's "rock-star quality." After meeting him, even the most jaded political reporters have been known to report that he is something rare and special, the heir to such charismatic predecessors as John F. Kennedy and Robert Kennedy.Skip to next paragraph
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In each generation, a few public figures come along who have a personal magnetism that makes strangers care deeply about them. Call it star power, call it charisma, this infrequent gift is akin to the power that great actors have.
According to legend, when Franklin D. Roosevelt was introduced to Orson Welles, he said graciously: "You know, Mr. Welles, you are the greatest actor in America." "Oh, no, Mr. President," Welles replied, "You are." What Welles recognized in Roosevelt is that political leadership is a performance art as surely as is acting on stage or in films.
When charismatic politicians such as Obama speak, they are able to turn a room full of strangers into a community rich in shared meaning, just as a great actor creates such a community within a theater. Whether such rock-star politicians talk about change or healthcare policy, they articulate a vision that those in the audience quickly make their own.
Charismatic leaders and their followers are interdependent; they feed and energize each other. The transformational leader gives the audience hope and makes it believe that, together, they can create a better future. Winston Churchill was a charismatic leader in this sense, as was Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Like Obama's, their rhetoric was suffused with optimism. They purveyed not fear, but shining new possibilities. Indeed, Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister, once said of Gandhi that he made India proud of herself.
Acting ability is an aspect of leadership in every arena, from the playground to the board room. But it is absolutely essential in national politics, where the only contact the average voter has with the candidate or office holder is almost always filtered through the media. Professional training isn't necessary, but only those who can act can succeed on television or the other visual media.
Playwright Arthur Miller explored this in a fascinating little book titled, "On Politics and the Art of Acting." As Mr. Miller observed, today's media require not florid acting, but the less-is-more kind. The candidate who is most likely to succeed today is the one who acts as though the camera isn't there.
In the first televised presidential debate, in 1960, the camera loved JFK's ease as much as it hated Richard Nixon's flop sweat and stage fright. In the current campaign, the camera's favorite is clearly Obama. The camera loves him, just as it once loved Bill Clinton, if only because the camera never seems to faze him.
Choosing a president has never been a more serious matter, and some will question whether a candidate's personal charisma really matters. Isn't charisma something relatively trivial, akin to, say, a nice head of hair and a bit of charm?
No. We firmly believe that the charismatic leader's unique capacity to inspire should not be undervalued. Before they pick America's 44th president in November, voters should give great weight to what a candidate with charisma would bring to the table.
But doesn't history caution against putting faith in a charismatic leader? True, some of history's worst villains – Adolf Hitler, of course, springs to mind – have been dangerous demagogues with a stranglehold on their public's fears and aspirations, which they have abused for their own wicked, self-aggrandizing schemes.