As I Please: The Myth Of Charisma

When Bob Carr was Leader of the Opposition first in 1988 it was said he was entirely free of charisma and the Labor Party was foolish to take him on. He was bookish, uninterested in sport, a reader of Proust, a Civil War buff, a passionate bushwalker, a policy wonk, a wearer of spectacles, a periodic teetotaller, not good looking, a bit of a bore, not charismatic at all, not a leader, no way.

Within three months of him being Premier it was said he was a ‘master politician’ with a voice that the then Prime Minister, Paul Keating, ‘would kill for’, the dominant figure in the Legislative Assembly and, somehow overnight, charismatic. A leader.

This leads me to wonder if ‘charisma’ is an actual quality or a quality one fathers on those who have power.

It doesn’t sound likely, but no-one used the word ‘charismatic’ before 1960.

In that year, John F. Kennedy was running for the Presidency at the (then) early age of 42. He had been for six years a Congressman, for seven years a Senator, but had rarely made a speech on the floor of the Chamber and had never authored, or co-authored, a significant piece of legislation. Though he had won a Pulitzer Prize for Profiles In Courage, a book of mini-biographies of significant political mavericks, it was widely known that he had not actually written it, and his loyal speechwriter, Ted Sorensen, had written it for him, after a few up-close discussions with him. An earlier book, Why England Slept, was not much liked, and his rich father Joe Kennedy bought up forty thousand copies to make it seem a bestseller.

He was also known to have a bad back, and an AIDS-like condition called Addison’s Disease which periodically disabled his immune system till urgently administered steroids restored his strength, and he spent a lot of time on crutches. It was thought by his doctors and by his family he might die before he was fifty. He had had the Last Rites once already, when he was 37. He was furthermore a Catholic, and his controversial father, whose multi-millions were made from boot-legging Canadian hooch into Massachussetts, had been ‘soft on Hitler’ in 1940, and as US Ambassador in England had urged the Churchill government to ‘do a deal’ with the Fuhrer.

Why, then, his backroom advisors asked, should this legislatively challenged Papist cripple and book-forger funded by a mendacious old crooked pro-Nazi whom Roosevelt had fired be President? He had been brave in the war after his PT boat had collided at night with a Japanese battleship he had not noticed while drinking at the wheel but that was about it. He was a dull speaker, had wall eyes and fucked, albeit discreetly, a great number of women, Audrey Hepburn, Angie Dickinson, Marlene Dietrich and Grace Kelly being only some of thousands. Why should this ailing priapic mediocrity with no legislative track-record be President?

The backroom worked on this problem. And they came up with an ancient Greek word, ‘charisma’, which meant, roughly speaking, ‘possessed and enlarged by the gods’, much like the adjacent word ‘enthusiasm’. It was decided that Jack, who had a good deal of charm, was ‘charismatic’, and he should be made President because if it. He had a special quality, they said. Charisma.

None of this would have been tried on had he not been chronically ill and likely to die before he was 50. Joe needed a President of his engendering in his lifetime, and he wasn’t prepared to wait for the healthier, sharper, more ardent and driven Bobby who was then only 35; correctly, as it turned out when Joe had his paralysing stroke in 1961. They had to go for it, go now. And ‘charisma’ was the clue. And so persuasive was their salesmanship that it became a cliche of politics. Harold Wilson was said to have it; Pierre Trudeau; Gough Whitlam; Edward Heath; Ronald Reagan.

I am not sure it has any particular meaning, except ‘able to speak persuasively, with an element of up-close, personal, magnetic charm’. Among those I have met I suppose Jim Cairns had it; Neville Wran; Enoch Powell; Don Dunstan; Gore Vidal; Tom Stoppard; Phillip Quast; Phillip Adams; Paul Cox; Paul Keating; Kim Beazley; John Lennon; Bill Clinton; Cheryl Kernot; Maxine McKew; Cate Blanchett; Mike Rann; Bill Shorten; Nathan Rees; Verity Firth; Clare Martin; Margaret Whitlam; Margaret Throsby; Kamahl; Noel Pearson. But after he gained power even John Howard seemed to have it, and Joh Bjelke-Petersen, and Nick Greiner, and Dick Smith. It may be an illusion contingent on situation, as in the case of Mark Latham, and, let’s face it, Kevin Rudd. Would Eric Abetz, Prime Minister, be charismatic? Probably.

There may be a lesser thing, called ‘personal force’, that varies a bit from leader to leader: Keating has more of it, Turnbull less. But it is not magical, it is not remarkable, it is not divinely gifted. The Kennedy backroom would want you to think that.

And they made it up. It was their fabrication. It had no existence before then.


Leave a comment ?


  1. I think you are correct and that nobody used charisma before JFK.

  2. You forget Hawke. Hawke had that magnetism in spades; more than any other politician I ever met.

    Peacock had it to a much lesser extent. His charismatic power was diminished in direct proportion to his preening vanity.

    Hawke has the Singo mongrel variety, although in a slightly more burnished form. It’s the stuff mythologised in many Australian films in the 80s like Gallipoli and the Lighthorsemen. Mel Gibson used to have this kind, before, like Paul Hogan, Hollywood hollowed it out of him. Jon Blake had it before the accident. I think I saw a glint of it in him afterwards too.

    Blue Cattle dogs carry the essence of this charisma strain. Laboradors, do not.

    Heath Ledger had it, and I see the shadow of its absence in the ever too perfect Hugh Jackman.

    Tell me about meeting John Lennon please.

  3. Gore Vidal, Tom Stoppard, Paul Keating, John Lennon, Bill Clinton, Cheryl Kernot, Nathan Rees, Margaret Whitlam, Tanya Plibersek, Penny Wong, Leonard Cohen, T Keneally…all maybes

    Howard, Abetz, Hawke, Rudd, Barbara Streisand…no,no.

    I have others, but I’m referring here to Bob’s list, more or less.

  4. I’ve seen Carr speak many times. Too many times.
    The man is all height and voice.
    There’s nothing especially important or powerful or charismatic BEHIND the voice.

    But I agree with you about Obama Bob. I could listen to him read a shopping list!

    • I can picture you, Moggy, swooning over Obama’s shopping list. Purrrrrrrrrrr
      (Who is Phil? Did he put in a full-stop?
      Pathetic pedant)

      • You couldn’t picture me if you sat staring at a polaroid for 3 days Mary!

        I know you’d like to. :wink:

        But I’ve already got one mother-in-law.
        I don’t need 2.

        Phil? Phil’s the guy that put a great big nail through your hypocrisy.
        Geeez, it was good to see!

  5. Yes, yes to Obama, an absolute no to Carr.

  6. Within three months of his being Premier ………. ‘master politician’. But that’s not charisma.
    Yes, Keating with the voice of a ghoul, would’ve killed for Bob Carr’s. (Not happy about that hair)

    Charisma exists.
    It’s divinely gifted.

  7. And charisma can be used as a negative too.
    I am a disciple of the late Indian Master Osho. I remember hearing him discussing the word charisma in a morning discourse. In order to explain away the large numbers of westerners attracted to him, critics spoke of his great charisma. He dismissed the idea. He always maintained that he was an ordinary person… “more ordinary than you”.
    In that context the word had a sinister tone to it. It was meant to be a kind of charm that attracted the gullible, against their better interests.
    It was the appearance of personal power that made it sound plausible. That was in the 1980s when Osho was a pariah. Today, in India, he is bigger that Ghandi. Can charisma grow posthumously?

  8. Bob Carr for Ring Leader 2013.

  9. Add in Mao Zedong and Adolf Hitler. I beg to differ on many of those quoted as charismatic by the commenters, but perhaps I just have a higher bar than some. It seems to me that JFK had it, Clinton and perhaps Obama.

    Any successful politician must have personal charm at a reasonable level; otherwise they will be followers and not leaders.

  10. Hair oil.
    JFK had hair that was free of hair oil. What a breezy, refreshing, youthful contrasting image that made to other “leaders” of the times like Harold Macmillan, RG Menzies and Dwight Eisenhower. They were his context: he was young and extraordinary and inspiring in comparison.
    That he was both a cripple and a sexual satyr seems unlikely.
    Perhaps a bad man: nevertheless people around the globe resonated to his words, and he was one enabling factor in the youth movement of the 60s.
    I would agree with Doug Q’s list except I would remove Clinton - too bubba and too easily cigar ridiculed, and also Obama: pity, but he’s too try hard.(See the photos where he tries, with photos of his daughters, to recreate the artlessness of jhk’s toddler son in the oval office. Ouch)
    No Australian politician has had any kind of universal approbation or inspired any kind of universal ideals.
    No Australian politician has had any kind of charisma.

  11. Seems to be marketing to me.People in their prime, the confidence of their moment.Illusions of power. All depends on the camera shots and the script.There’s a whole world above and around politics that sheep haven’t the right glasses to see.
    That whole world works in the peoples favour and against it because it’s a lot of power to have when your dividing the cake for everyone in just desserts.

    I believe some people do have charisma but in politics i believe it’s a marketing ploy.

    Something tells me Obama and Carr may be a little alike in some ways and may not take to each other or each others stands even if they basically agree on an issue.Squeaky chalk on a blackboard to each other. Could work either way i suppose. Both listen and learn well.

Leave a Comment

* Copy this password:

* Type or paste password here:

13,834 Spam Comments Blocked so far by Spam Free Wordpress

NOTE - You can use these HTML tags and attributes:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>