No Holds Barred: Charisma and the presidency

George Washington, who preceded him as president, was neither a gifted public orator nor possessed of electrifying charisma.

US President walking into the White House (photo credit: OFFICIAL WHITE HOUSE PHOTO / PETE SOUZA)
US President walking into the White House
The race for the US presidency got into formal swing last night with the first Republican debate hosted by Fox News. What will determine who moves ahead? The issues or personal magnetism? How much a role does charisma play as a central ingredient in American leadership? America is a country that, since its founding, eschewed the charismatic leadership of the great Europe monarchies to create simple, plain-spoken men whose claim to leadership was moral stature rather than largerthan- life showmanship.
In 18th-century Europe, kings and princes cultivated an aura of awe-inspiring magnetism that was enhanced by city-size palaces and retinues of thousands of courtiers all decked out in shimmering gold and silk. The very sight of the monarch was designed to inspire awe in his subjects as they cowed before the unapproachable leader who was the chosen of God.
Contrast this with the simple executive mansion, later called the White House, which was built for the American president and first occupied in 1800 by a corpulent John Adams, whose own lack of personal charisma was powerfully captured in David McCullough’s Pulitzer-prize winning biography. What Adams did have, however, was a sense of moral courage that caused him to be one of the most outspoken voices against British tyranny that earned him the respect of his countrymen.
George Washington, who preceded him as president, was neither a gifted public orator nor possessed of electrifying charisma. By all accounts, he was stiff, serious and aloof. What he did have, however, was a towering moral authority, an unequaled sense of gravitas, which induced awed in all who met him.
The same was true of Thomas Jefferson, who is not remembered for great speeches. On the contrary, his charisma was manifest in his pen, with his greatest literary legacy being the Declaration of Independence.
Abraham Lincoln was a gangly man who dressed poorly, laughed uncontrollably, told odd country yarns, and failed to impress nearly all who met him. He was regularly compared unfavorably to William Seward, his rival for the presidency in 1860 and later his secretary of state, who was refined, polished, and oozed charisma. What made Lincoln America’s greatest leader was not personal magnetism but an iron will and unshakable moral courage.
When he delivered the Gettysburg Address on November 19, 1863, it took scarcely two minutes and bored all who heard it. It was savaged by most of the newspapermen who covered it. But when people poured over the text over the next few days and weeks, it became clear that he had, in written form, articulated the moral soul of the American experiment.
What Lincoln lacked in natural charisma he more than made up for in rectitude, honesty and moral virtue.
The three men who are widely considered to have been America’s greatest political orators never became president. John C. Calhoun only made it to vice president, while Daniel Webster and William Jennings Bryan had six losing bids for the presidency between them.
A rejection of charismatic leadership in favor of quiet moral purpose traces its roots all the way back to the Bible and its greatest prophet, Moses, who was so inept at giving speeches that he had to deputize his brother Aaron as his spokesman.
Having been born with a stutter, Moses inspired the people not with electric flair but with overwhelming righteousness.
Indeed, there is something to be said about the dangers of charismatic leadership, charisma being the natural ability to draw people whether you are deserving of it or not. It can be easily abused, causing the public to follow blindly. It can obscure the real issues and substitute them instead with a false cult of personality. To make our point, we need not focus on the most criminal examples, like Hitler, Stalin and Mao, all of whom demanded and received blind obedience that led their people off a moral precipice.
Rather, the most common examples in our own time are rock and roll stars, the most charismatic of all personalities in Western culture.
Indeed, when a leader like Barack Obama begins to draw hundreds of thousands of people to a speech we begin to refer to him as “a rock star.”
None of this is to say that a candidate’s gift for oratory or his personal charisma is not an important ingredient in leadership. I love great oratory and have listened to recordings of the world’s greatest speeches on countless occasions and have even tried to memorize a few. I find nothing as uplifting as soaring oratory from a gifted communicator. But what makes a candidate an effective leader has less to do with his ability to excite crowds and more to do with his sense of moral purpose and ability to implement his vision rather than anything he might say about it.
The greatest American speaker of the modern era was the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. No doubt, his mesmerizing speeches were central to the success of the civil rights movement.
But his words would not have amounted to a hill of beans had Dr. King not been a man of towering moral purpose who used his words to get people to act. It was the marches, rather than the words, of the civil rights movement that broke down the walls of segregation.
Had Dr. King not employed his stunning command of language to overturn centuries of injustice by inspiring people to risk their lives to claim their rights, we might still have quoted his speeches, and we might still have hung on his every word. But in the final analysis, it would have been nothing more than gratifying entertainment.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is the international best-selling author of 30 books.
He will shortly publish