Friday, June 17, 2011

More on Charisma

Actually, a lot more on charisma.

Frederick Allen over at Forbes (as well as some commenters here) took issue with my claims about charisma, specifically about various presidential losers having at one time having being described as charismatic. So I figured I should do some work to back it up. I think the claim holds up, although I couldn't find enough evidence to probably convince everyone.

It's not all that easy to search for (search on "Richard Nixon charisma" and you get lots of articles about JFK, and pre-1980 stuff is harder to come by from basic public searches), but here's a sampling. Also I get the sense that Kennedy brought the word "charisma" into politics in the first place, so when Nixon was popular and telegenic (yes, he was -- Checkers was a big success) early in his career, no one would have thought to use that word about him.  I should say right away that most of the references I came across for Johnson, Nixon, and George HW Bush were about their lack of charisma, but we all know that; my claim is only that they "gained" charisma when they were winning. So here are a bunch of citations. Also, while I didn't include it below, I did find one management book that referred to "charismatic leaders like Nikolai Lenin and Lyndon Johnson." For whatever that's worth.

Richard Nixon
September 1968 Headline:
Poll Finds Nixon Tops in Charisma
Al Capp, February 1973 op-ed:
And so in Mr. Nixon we [have] the only politician forward-looking enough to recognize and understand the New Charisma.
Jules Whitcover's The Resurrection of Richard Nixon
He had more charisma than anyone ever gave him credit for.
Lyndon Johnson
From The Making of the Prime Minister. a 1965 book:
Alone among British politicians, he [a Tory politician; sorry, don't know who] has something of the Lyndon Johnson mass magic, or charisma, in the popular phrase.
A Texas constituent who dealt with Johnson in person is quoted:
He had that charisma.
Jimmy Carter
Of the four presidents I made the claim about, Carter is the easiest; there are plenty of references to him as a candidate who won on charisma, not issues. Including:

William Loeb, in a (NYT) August 1976 op-ed about why Carter and Reagan did well:
This attitude...[is] more likely to result, especially since the advent of television, from the fact that a premium is put on charisma.
After a Carter-Ford debate, a student is quoted:
I think as a leader, a country has got to have a man with a certain amount of charisma...Carter has that so much more than Ford does.
Business Week, in 1976:
The charisma that has swept Jimmy Carter to a series of primary election triumphs...

George H.W. Bush
A John Oates op-ed, November 1988
Michael Dukakis may not have the synthetic charisma of George Bush, but this election should be about character.
In 1974:
He has what political oddsmakers like to call "magnatism," that being a kind of aura about him that falls just a notch below actual "charisma."

I didn't search for anyone else, but I did come across:

John Kerry
Frank Rich says in September 2004:
The young vet's charisma so upset Richard Nixon that he schemed with Charles Colson and Bob Haldeman to counter Mr. Kerry with a pro-Vietnam attack dog:
Barry Goldwater
Tom Wicker in September 1964:
Perhaps first among his assets are the Senator's own charm and charisma...

So: basically, Carter had plenty of charisma; the other three had it for just fleeting moments when everything was going perfectly -- all three have lots and lots of references to not having charisma.

But we already know that. And there's an excellent explanation for why Carter had far more than Johnson, Nixon, and Bush, which is the thing that the three all had in common: the vice presidency. It's an office where charisma goes to die; by occupying the office, you're already a loser (and of course Johnson and Bush got there by losing nominations, as did other VP non-charismatics Hubert Humphrey and Al Gore -- although I couldn't find much on Gore pre-1992, for whatever that's worth).

Now, I don't want to say that you have to win a nomination to get charisma: John Lindsey, John Connally, Bob Kerrey, and Jesse Jackson, among others, all were said to have it, and others with similar accomplishments were said to not have it. So pre-presidential campaign, some are said to have it and some are not. But I'd bet that virtually all presidential nominees who hadn't previously served as Veep had it, at least for a few fleeting moments (and far more if they won), and even the former VPs got a bit of it when things really went their way.

So while there are other ways of getting charisma, I'll stick with my first cut: winning causes charisma, not the other way around.

My favorite quotation, by the way, is the Al Capp one about Nixon. It suggests how adaptable the concept is: if someone is winning who everyone already agreed doesn't have it, then he must have some other, superior form of it.


  1. I wonder if it would be hair-splitting to ask whether there's a meaningful distinction between "having charisma" and "being charismatic."

  2. Well, in the 2000 campaign I remember Bush's charisma being remarked upon, but not Gore's. I also can't recall anyone describing Kerry as charismatic in the 2004 race, when it looked like he might win. Now, if either Gore or Kerry had won, I have no doubt that the press would discover their winning personal qualities, but that's really beside the point if what you're interested in are qualities that influence voter behavior.

  3. I don't think you've done a convincing job establishing your thesis, which in your original post was: "Winning causes candidates to 'acquire' charisma; losing causes politicians to lose it.... Clinton's smile would have been (thought to be) more endearing than Obama's had she won; Kerry would have been (thought to be) the charmer, while Bush's locker-room style would have been (thought to be) an arrogant smirk."

    This isn't well-supported by any of the examples you gave. Yes, winning potentially may make press accounts more likely to credit the winner as possessing charisma, and more likely to suggest that the loser is lacking in it. But that's very different from saying that charisma is entirely dependent on winning or losing--which is what you were implying with your Clinton/Obama example.

    The example, if anything, undermines your case: Obama has been widely considered charismatic from the moment he appeared on the national stage--his rousing speech at the 2004 convention, and his subsequent transformation into a political celebrity had a lot to do with it. Hillary was never widely considered charismatic. (A few stray articles crediting her with charisma don't count.)

    Of course, the elephant in the room (which no commenter has pointed out so far) is that you've been treating the press's perceptions of charisma as indistinguishable from charisma itself. Maybe you were simply being snarky, but there is nothing in your arguments acknowledging that charisma is an independently meaningful quality, and that someone may be mistaken in believing that a politician has or lacks charisma. So even if winners are more likely to be described in the press as charismatic, that doesn't mean they actually are more charismatic.

    Granted, charisma is a somewhat nebulous concept, but there are things you can look for. One is good looks--which isn't necessary, but often goes hand and hand. Another is strong public speaking ability. A tendency to wow crowds.

    If anything, you're the one who gets it backwards: one of the reasons vice presidents are less likely to be thought of as charismatic is that the people selected for that job very often are less charismatic than the man at the top. Cheney always appears uncomfortable in front of a camera, and that's part of the reason he never ran for president; if that isn't an objective way of suggesting that he's not charismatic, I don't know what is.

    As for Nixon, he always had a certain awkwardness that sometimes could seem endearing, which was one of the main reasons the Checkers speech was such a success. But he wasn't the traditional image of a charismatic politician. That is a fair judgment of how he came off--not simply a perception that came from his serving as vp and losing a presidential election.

    And I've seen lots of people in the media describe Sarah Palin as charismatic, including many who dislike her. She was described that way both before and after losing the 2008 election. The perception that she was charismatic dampened somewhat after her disastrous interviews with Couric, but that's simply because charisma has a lot to do with communication skills, and while she has undeniable public speaking talent, she often sounds unimpressive if not inarticulate in interviews.

    I'm going to need to see a lot more data to be convinced that winners (at least those that weren't vp) invariably come to be thought of as charismatic, and losers invariably uncharismatic. It seems that you're just cherry-picking. But even if you do come up with the evidence, that still wouldn't imply that charisma cannot be identified except through what the media thinks.

  4. I was happy to see this thread. In part because the topic is interesting, in part because I regretted violating blog etiquette by writing so much on the last thread, and in part because I regretted coming down too hard on the original thesis. I still disagree strongly with "winning=charisma", but as I will expand on shortly, charisma is a nebulous concept used to mean all sorts of things, winning being far from the worst of these. The best illustration of this distinction is John Kerry, a politician of many prodigious gifts; charisma, tragically, not among them.

    Again, Merriam-Webster's first definition of charisma is: "a personal magic of leadership arousing special popular loyalty or enthusiasm for a public figure". Kerry's star turn in front of the SFRC in 1974 exhibited many admirable traits, such as expressive articulateness, intelligence, passion, courage, good looks, etc. Each can be used by pundits as a proxy for charisma. But what about this "arousing special popular loyalty" business? How did Kerry do on that metric?

    Curiously, while the linked Rich article credited Kerry with charisma, Rich was apparently referring to the "good looks/intelligence/courage/etc" version of charisma, since earlier in the same article, Rich tells us that "Mr. Kerry's antiwar role pushed him into closer proximity to My Lai than Iwo Jima". My Lai? Really? The village of 500 or so South Vietnamese massacred by US troops? Look, your "arousing special popular loyalty" may not be exactly the same as mine, but I'll bravely venture on the limb that says that the guy who channels My Lai will invoke vanishingly little "special popular loyalty", which, come to think of it, more or less sums up Kerry's disappointing national political career.

    I think Kerry is also a pertinent example because, in my non-professional opinion, it seems like charisma is probably a meaningful variable in marginal elections. 'Charisma' as in the 'evoking special popular loyalty' definition, not those several other positive traits Rich must have had in mind when crediting a young John Kerry with "charisma".

  5. If you want to pursue this further, consider expanding the search beyond the term "charisma" and looking for comparisons to JFK. If a politician is said to resemble JFK in some way, s/he's functionally being described as charismatic. If s/he's said to be trying to resemble JFK (i.e. visibly so, which suggests a failure to), that's more ambiguous, but probably means the writer sees him/her as not (naturally) charismatic.

  6. Also, "Kennedyesque." Look for the term Kennedyesque.

  7. Thanks to all for the comments and suggestions. Sounds like several of you are going to disagree with me, but that's how it goes; no need (Kylopod) to apologize for detailed, interesting comments -- indeed, I very much like reading those that disagree.

    I think I'll leave it there, at least for now...I've put enough time into this one for now. My apologies for not engaging further.


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