The Charisma Mandate
TAKING office in 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt confronted a country in crisis. Four in 10 working-age Americans were jobless. Banks were collapsing. There were long lines outside tellers’ windows as people rushed to withdraw their savings.
On March 4, Roosevelt gave his now famous inaugural address, promising that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Within days he had secured legislation guaranteeing the banks, and on March 12, he took to the radio for the first of his fireside chats. “When the people find out that they can get their money — that they can get it when they want it — the phantom of fear will soon be laid,” he soothed an anxious nation. “I can assure you, it is safer to keep your money in a re-opened bank than under your mattress.”
When banks re-opened the next morning, the lines were gone, as Robert A. Caro recounted in the first volume of his biography of Lyndon Johnson, “The Path to Power.” People put money back in, so much that on the first day after the chat, deposits outweighed withdrawals by $10 million.
It was the legislation, but mostly, Mr. Caro writes: “Their confidence was restored by his confidence. When he smiled on the crisis, it seemed to vanish.”
Would we call this a cult of personality?
Today that term is all around Barack Obama — perhaps because there seems so little other way to explain how a first-term senator has managed to dazzle his way to front-runner in the race for the presidency, how he walks on water for so many supporters, and how the mere suggestion that he is, say, mortal, risks vehement objection, or at least exposing the skeptic as deeply uncool.
It’s far too soon to know what role Mr. Obama will play in history, let alone whether he can be compared to F.D.R., or, as he is most commonly, to John F. Kennedy. But it is perhaps time to look more closely at this label that attaches to him, and how it has been applied in the past.
The “cult of personality” is used in the pejorative. But recast as a different name — call it charisma — and, as Roosevelt and other examples show, it can be a critical element of politics and its practical cousin, governance. It just can’t be the only element.
“Today, attacks on the cult of personality seem really to mean attacks on the ability to make speeches that inspire,” Mr. Caro said in an interview. “But you only have to look at crucial moments in the history of our time to see how crucial it was to have a leader who could inspire, who could rally a nation to a standard, who could infuse a country with confidence, to remind people of the justice of a cause.”
Still, Mr. Caro adds a caveat: “That doesn’t always translate into a great presidency.”
So what does it look like?
Charisma, as defined by the early sociologist Max Weber, was one of three “ideal types” of authority — the others were legal, as in a bureaucracy, and traditional, as in a tribe — and rested upon a kind of magical power and hero worship. That definition was, of course, unsuitable for modern times, as one of Weber’s many interpreters, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., wrote in “The Politics of Hope.” Its use became metaphorical, as Mr. Schlesinger wrote, “a chic synonym for heroic, or for demagogic, or even just for ‘popular.’ ”
But it was also a coolness that Norman Mailer captured in Kennedy — for whom Mr. Schlesinger became a kind of official hero-worshiper — writing about the 1960 Democratic convention in Los Angeles. Mr. Mailer described how Kennedy’s convertible, then his suntan and his teeth, emerged before a camera-filled crowd in Pershing Square, “the prince and the beggars of glamour staring at one another across a city street.”
There was, Mr. Mailer wrote: “an elusive detachment to everything he did. One did not have the feeling of a man present in the room with all his weight and all his mind. Johnson gave you all of himself, he was a political animal, he breathed like an animal, sweated like one, you knew his mind was entirely absorbed with the compendium of political fact and maneuver; Kennedy seemed at times like a young professor whose manner was adequate for the classroom but whose mind was off in some intricacy of the Ph.D. thesis he was writing.”
By any definition, the charismatic leader emerges at a time of crisis or national yearning, and perhaps a vacuum in that nation’s institutions. Mr. Schlesinger wrote in 1960 of a “new mood in politics,” with people feeling “that the mood which has dominated the nation for a decade is beginning to seem thin and irrelevant.” There was, he wrote, “a mounting dissatisfaction with the official priorities, a deepening concern with our character and objectives as a nation.”
That might well describe the climate Obama supporters feel now.
Alan Wolfe, the director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Political Life at Boston College, says Mr. Obama is simply — understandably — making an emotional appeal to those yearnings. “Politics is about policy, but it’s also about giving people some kind of sense of participating in a common venture with their fellow citizens,” Mr. Wolfe said.
Philosophers call it “civil religion,” using the language of religion and elevation to talk about your country. A classic example is Ronald Reagan’s summoning of the “city on a hill.” That, Professor Wolfe said, was the parallel Mr. Obama was hinting at when he talked about Reagan as a transformative leader.
“A soft civil religion is something our country desperately needs at a time of deep partisanship,” Mr. Wolfe said. “He wants to go back to the Reagan years as a Democrat, with Democratic policies.”
But others see in this same language a more cynical cult of personality.
“What is troubling about the campaign is that it’s gone beyond hope and change to redemption,” said Sean Wilentz, a historian at Princeton (and a longtime friend of the Clintons). “It’s posing as a figure who is the one person who will redeem our politics. And what I fear is, that ends up promising more from politics than politics can deliver.”
From the day Mr. Obama announced his candidacy, he has billed it as a movement, and himself as the agent of generational change. He has mocked his rival, Hillary Rodham Clinton, for accusing him of raising “false hopes.” “We don’t need leaders who are telling us what we cannot do,” he said in New Hampshire. “We need a president who can tell us what we can do! What we can accomplish! Where we can take this country!”
Accounts of the campaign’s “Camp Obama” sessions, to train volunteers, have a revivalist flavor. Volunteers are urged to avoid talking about policy to potential voters, and instead tell of how they “came” to Mr. Obama.
“If you don’t talk about issues in great detail, if you do it in a way that is not the centerpiece of your campaign, of your rhetoric, then you become a blank screen,” Mr. Wilentz said. “Everybody thinks you are the vehicle of their hopes.”
“To confuse this with Teddy Roosevelt or J.F.K. or F.D.R. is to make a fundamental historical error,” he said. “It’s confusing the offer of leadership with the offer of redemption. One offers specific programs, the other is hope and change. Certainly F.D.R. gave hope, but he was going to do it through these various programs.”
And even for all their admiration of F.D.R., historians are quick to point out that soon after he had swept nearly every state in being elected to a second term, he tried to upend the constitutional separation of powers with a proposal to allow him to pack the Supreme Court by appointing up to six new justices (Congress wouldn’t let him). He defied the two-term tradition, and, some say, might have come to view himself as president for life.
“There is a certain kind of hubris that sets in,” said Doris Kearns Goodwin, a biographer of presidents from Lincoln to Johnson. (She recalls finding a letter one fan wrote to Franklin Roosevelt, reading essentially, “I’ve lost the roof on my house, I’ve lost my job, my wife is mad at me and my dog died, but you are there, everything will be O.K.”)
Theodore Roosevelt made a similar leap in his return appearance in the campaign of 1912, Ms. Goodwin said, when, upset with the Supreme Court’s knocking down his progressive legislation, he proposed allowing people to override judicial decisions. He ignored pleas not to run from those who said the Progressive movement had to be bigger than his personality, and ended up splitting the Republican Party.
Whether and how charisma translates into legislative action is the critical question. It remained unclear when Kennedy died whether he would have been able to get through the civil rights legislation forced through by Johnson, who inherited Kennedy’s office but never his cool.
When Mrs. Clinton talked about how it took Johnson as well as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to achieve the rights legislation, Ms. Goodwin said, “she was absolutely right.” Johnson’s great mastery was to get the support of Southern Republicans. “It required his understanding of absolutely every single senator,” Ms. Goodwin said. “They were a team. Without Martin Luther King agitating the country and J.F.K. picking up the bill there would not have been that pressure on the Congress, and without L.B.J. there would not have been a bill.”
Still, Mr. Caro, now writing about Johnson and the Kennedys, said he has come to appreciate another aspect of how Johnson swayed Congress. While his legislative maneuvering was peerless, what really pushed the rights act was his appearance before Congress, demanding an end to prejudice using the language of the movement: “We shall overcome.”
Hearing that, Mr. Caro said, an aide to Dr. King turned and saw something he had never seen: the great civil rights leader was weeping. “The more and more I study it, the more you see the impact that speech had.”
Ideally, Ms. Goodwin said, you’d have the combination of experience and charisma, “if you could mush Clinton and Obama together as one person.”http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/17/weekinreview/17zernike.html?_r=1&oref=slogin