1. Charismatic choice?
2. The business of
3. Powerful words = charismatic words?
Charisma at a distance
The Kennedy-Nixon debates of 1960 were an early
test of personal charisma in the TV era. But was Kennedy's charisma
based only on appearance? Photo: John
F. Kennedy Library and Museum
Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, leaders
of the original axis of evil, enjoy adulation in Munich, Germany,
about June 1940. For a Hitler sound bite, listen
to this AIFF file (588kb)
Hitler.ws Historical Archives.
Archives and Records Administration
Does terror mastermind Osama bin Laden exude
charisma? Photo: U.S.
Department of Justice
Talk political charisma 20th century America, and you'll read certain names over and over: Franklin Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and John Kennedy. Kennedy's "victory," after all, in the first televised presidential debate,
set the stage for his narrow win over Richard Nixon in 1960.
Many accounts of the debate contrast Nixon's furtive demeanor and 5 o'clock shadow to Kennedy's movie-star looks and optimistic, engaging personality. But Nixon lost the charisma contest on other grounds as well, says Harry Levinson, a psychologist and organizational consultant who has retired from Harvard University. "It wasn't just because of the way [Nixon] looked, although that was how it was described. He also was humorless, had no jokes, no amusing stories, nothing that bespoke affection of any kind. Kennedy, on other hand, spoke in an enthusiastic way," full of vigor and confidence.
Overall, Levinson says, Nixon's secretive, introspective demeanor cost him votes and affection. "One did not see him engaged, he did not seem to be enjoying life, he was paranoid enough to be hostile and keep people at arms' length, to attribute nefarious motives to them. It's pretty hard to be charismatic if you're a sourpuss."
And yet charisma doesn't always rule: Nixon beat Hubert Humphrey in 1968, and, with a little help from his plumbers, routed George McGovern in 1972.
Words are an important element of communications skills. But in the television age, you can't be charismatic unless you get your face in front of the public.
Yes, we're talking television.
Assuming that we learn most of what we know about public figures from the media, Tamir Sheafer, a lecturer at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem , analyzed what he calls "charismatic communication skills" among members of Israel's parliament, the Knesset. To start the analysis, Sheafer created a series of categories that might explain how some members achieved more media coverage and more media approval. In an e-mail interview, he explained , "These are visible behavioral categories that are relevant to the specific requirements of the political communication arena":
initiative and creativity
initiative and creativity
and dramatic abilities
In Sheafer's view, then, charisma is not just a product of appearance, word choice,
or even ambitious goals. Getting favorable notice in the press -- being charismatic
in the communications arena -- depends on a politician's political policies.
When Sheafer analyzed the behavior and press coverage of Knesset members, he found "a strong and statistically significant influence of charismatic communication skill" on the quantity and quality of a member's media coverage.
In fact, he concluded, "Charismatic communication skill is the most important variable that affects media legitimacy, and its effect is much stronger than that of political standing and of the level of parliamentary activity (which does not affect media legitimacy at all)." See "Charismatic Skill and Media..." in the bibliography.
Charisma may not be a good thing. Just being good at mobilizing your followers says nothing about your goals. "Hitler is a good example of the dark side" of charisma, says Jerry Wofford. "If a person's values are destructive, insane, then the more charismatic the leader, the worse off you are."
History, of course, might explain why Germans are leery of charismatic leaders, but Hitler is not the only example. While the specifics of what makes a person charismatic depend on the cultural backdrop, charisma seems to play a role in the ascension of many leaders. "Osama bin Laden is obviously delusional, but ... his charisma is probably the most significant factor in why he has so many followers," says Jodi Deluca. "There is something very persuasive about him, and the same thing is true with Lenin, Hitler."
All these leaders, she says, "Knew how to win their people over, how to approach the individual .. . The way they talk, it's very confident, very assuring, very articulate."
For better, or for worse.
Don't miss the charisma bibliography.