Friday, November 30, 2007

No More Charisma

Of the friends who heard me on "All Things Considered," all have mentioned the same favorite comment: "Something, something ...I will be contrarian here. I don't want a charismatic president. I want a guy who will just get to work."

This is not a new thought for me, but I found it an interesting contrast to a comment by one of the other participants. He allowed that for people of our age and older, the image of JFK was still the picture of the ideal president, even if you weren't a Democrat. I had to admit it was true. We look at the early 60's as a time when America was at her best, not in terms of what we had accomplished, but in what we thought we might accomplish. The Kennedy image embodies that feeling so well, even at this late date.

But it was in retrospect the time when we screwed things up most. Not only did we start out in South Vietnam under Kennedy, we thought it would be a good idea to have the CIA assassinate its ruler. We decided to uselessly go to the moon, instead of using the space program for pure research, military, or commercial purposes, any of which would have been better. We sponsored a coup in Iraq, installing the Baath Party. The Great Society ideas of Lyndon Johnson, including the increasing federal involvement in education, welfare, and medical care, were mostly New Frontier ideas that Kennedy had been unable to wrestle through the legislature.

Yet our image, even my image, of the era is that those were good times.

Charisma blinds us to reality. The conventional wisdom now is that Reagan was also charismatic. I am not so sure. I was a liberal then, so perhaps I couldn't see the full effect, but I thought of him then as the anti-charisma candidate. I admit, perhaps the anti-charisma of being just plain folk is in itself a type of charisma. But I saw him as an affable but rather boring sort of guy who had the two ideas of cutting taxes and fighting communism locked in his head, and otherwise just sort of wandered around. Looking back, that worked out pretty well.

I acknowledge that a certain aura of leadership and inspiration are necessary in a chief executive, and that there are times that the impression of such things are as important as the reality. Churchill's charisma saved western civilization, but he was not regarded as charismatic until well into WWII. Before that, he was regarded as rather a tiresome and bumbling pest who was always going on about preparing for the Nazi threat.

No more charisma. We want affable, boring leaders with limited agendas, not inspiring figures who make us believe we can do anything.

I would tell you who that means you should vote for in the Republican primary, but attaching the boring label to someone would do them more harm than good. Just keep the principle in mind: anyone who inspires you too much can convince you to do stupid things.


Anonymous said...

Substance over glitter...kinda like Rocky Balboa over Apollo Creed...

Yeah. Maybe we should make 'em duke it out.

Anonymous said...

What did we know in 1960-63? My kids, at a similar age, knew either Reagan, Bush I or Clinton as their first president. Is that an image that sticks in general? What do people our parents age really remember about Kennedy? We both grew up in Democratic families, so it's hard to get a read on that. But not everyone was enamored with Kennedy's charisma (although, based on the view of the debates, it won the day), but Nixon lost that election by losing Illinois (thanks, Mayor Daley). Half the country was not taken with his charisma (of course, many of them were motivated by their anti-catholic sentiment - give us a good 'ol quaker any day! I wonder how many people vote for Ted Kennedy today because he's catholic?). There's your tribes thing again. I was in Catholic school at the time (in Massachusetts, no less), so to speak ill of Kennedy was heresy.

John Edwards and Mitt Romeny probably comes the closet to the Kennedy "charisma" (read - good looks). But funny looking people with big ears (Ross Perot) just don't win big elections in this country. At least not in this century!