Can bores be president?

What is more important: charismatic leadership or quiet moral purpose?

us special 2 224 (photo credit: )
us special 2 224
(photo credit: )
While the world was electrified last week by Barack Obama's tour of the Middle East and Europe, John McCain was shopping for apple sauce with a family in Pennsylvania. It was a photo-op of stupefying monotony and served to highlight the vast wattage that separates the two candidates. Obama, in his shades, flying with David Petraeus across Baghdad, could power Gotham. McCain could scarcely power the Energizer bunny. But this seeming discrepancy should call our attention to how something other than personal magnetism has always been the central ingredient in great American leadership. First, if it's simply excitement that we're looking for, then McCain, as a navy fighter pilot who spent five years defying bad-guy jailors in the Hanoi Hilton, has an equal claim to the mantle. That's pretty heady stuff even by Tom Cruise standards. Second, surely both Obama and McCain want to be known for being serious, as opposed to merely entertaining. Both men would ultimately like to be evaluated for their command of the issues and their judgment rather than a mere ability to excite a crowd. Third, and most importantly, America is a country that, since its founding, eschewed the charismatic leadership of the great European monarchies to create simple, plain-spoken men whose claim to leadership was towering moral stature. In 18th-century Europe, kings cultivated an aura of awe-inspiring magnetism that was enhanced by city-size palaces and retinues of thousands decked in gold and silk. The very sight of the monarch was designed to inspire awe of his subjects as they cowed before "the chosen of God." Contrast this with the simple mansion, later called the White House, built for the US president and first occupied by a corpulent John Adams, whose own lack of 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. George Washington, who preceded him as president, was neither a gifted public orator nor possessed of electrifying charisma. By all accounts, he was stiff and aloof. What he did have, however, was moral authority, an unequaled sense of gravitas. The same is true of Thomas Jefferson, who is not remembered for a single speech. On the contrary, his charisma was manifest in his pen, with his greatest legacy being the Declaration of Independence. Abraham Lincoln was a gangly man who dressed poorly, laughed uncontrollably, told odd yarns and failed to impress nearly all who met him. He was compared unfavorably to William Seward, his rival for the presidency in 1860 and later his secretary of state, who was refined and oozed charisma. What made Lincoln America's greatest leader was an iron will and moral courage. When he delivered the Gettysburg Address on November 19, 1863, it took scarcely five minutes and bored all who heard it. But when people poured over the text, it became clear that he had articulated the moral soul of the American experiment. What Lincoln lacked in charisma he made up for in rectitude, honesty and virtue. It is interesting to note that the three men widely considered to have been America's greatest 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 Moses. Born with a stutter, Moses inspired the people not with flair but with overwhelming righteousness. There is something to be said about the dangers of charismatic leadership. It can be easily abused, causing the public to follow blindly. It can obscure the real issues and substitute 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. Rather, the most common example in our own time are rock stars, the most charismatic of all personalities in Western culture. When a politician like Obama begins to draw hundreds of thousands to a speech, as he did in Berlin, we begin to refer to him as "a rock star." But surely Obama, an intellectual and a serious student of the issues, is weary of the comparison. None of this is to say that Obama's phenomenal oratory or his charisma are not important ingredients in leadership. Less so it is to say that Obama would not make a great president. Indeed, I personally love great oratory and have listened to recordings of the world's greatest speeches on countless occasions. I find nothing as uplifting. It is to say, however, that whether Obama or McCain become effective leaders will have less to do with their ability to excite crowds and more to do with their sense of moral purpose and ability to actualize their vision rather than anything they 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 King not been a man of towering moral purpose who used his words to get people to do. It was the marches, rather than the words, that broke down the walls of segregation. Had King not employed his stunning command of language to overturn centuries of injustice, 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 entertainment. The writer is the international best-selling author of 20 books.