Mr. Charisma: Obama or Osama

Review of Charisma: The Gift of Grace, and How It Has Been Taken Away From Us, by Philip Rieff

New York Post , April 07, 2007

Democrats are "hypnotized by charisma," warns former Sen. Bill Bradley in his new book, "The New American Story."

"Ever since JFK's Camelot, Democrats have been looking for a leader whose very presence would ensure the nation's primacy."

His party's obsession with charisma, Bradley suggests, has distracted Democrats from the work of party-building and policy making. "Many of us are still waiting for another charismatic leader whom we can invest with powers more magical than real," he writes.

You can see this dynamic in the race for the 2008 presidential nomination. Hillary Clinton may be the Democrats' top fund-raiser but she's losing, badly, to Barack Obama in the charisma contest. He is the fresh young prince onto whom Democrats project their hopes and dreams.

But that's not charisma. It's glamour.

Glamour is an imaginative illusion - the word originally meant a literal magic spell - whose meaning comes from the audience's own aspirations. Glamour requires mystery. It is escapist. It does not spell out an agenda. It allows the audience to imagine whatever it desires.

Charisma, by contrast, is demanding.

We tend to use the word "charisma" to mean "stage presence" and "personal magnetism." Yet those are at most elements of charisma, not its essence. Rather, charisma is a quality of leadership that inspires followers to commit themselves to the disciplined pursuit of a greater good, one to which the charismatic leader has dedicated his own life.

"There is no charisma without creed," writes the late sociologist Philip Rieff in Charisma: The Gift of Grace, and How It Has Been Taken Away from Us, just published posthumously.

Originally a religious concept, charisma may challenge conventional rules, but it does so in the service of a greater authority. A charismatic leader offers both a diagnosis of where the world has gone wrong and new rules for living.

"The leaders' deeper knowing, the confidence that was gained as a result of their successful quests for truth, shone out to others as a beacon and became the base for their subsequent charismatic appeal," writes the Australian psychologist Len Oakes in Prophetic Charisma: The Psychology of Revolutionary Religious Personalities. Oakes' 1997 book closely examined the lives and ministries of contemporary "prophets," including leaders of radical Christian groups, Eastern religious sects and New Age groups.

Charismatic leaders inspire followers, Oakes writes, by demonstrating that it is possible to live "in accord with their ultimate concerns . . . The followers yearn to receive instruction (and the leader yearns to instruct), but most of all the followers take heart that what is sought is attainable through effort and courage."

Charisma may take a secular form, as Max Weber suggested when he first popularized the term in sociology. But even secular charisma makes demands in the service of a larger cause, whether the success of a business endeavor, the military conquest of a rival nation or the production of a movie or a great building. A charismatic leader subjects himself to the same disciplines he expects from others.

Applied to the commitments and projects of self-selected groups, charismatic leadership can accomplish great things, both spiritual and practical.

But real political charisma is dangerous. It demands submission to a single idea of the good.

Except in unusual circumstances - Martin Luther King challenging the nation to "live out the true meaning of its creed" or Winston Churchill promising "nothing but blood, toil, tears and sweat" - political charisma is antithetical to a free and democratic society. (When circumstances change, free citizens abandon their charismatic leaders to pursue new, less universal purposes.)

Adolf Hitler, not JFK, exemplified 20th-century political charisma. In our times, ancient religious charisma has combined with new political forms to produce Osama bin Laden - a creedal prophet utterly unanticipated in Rieff's analysis, which sees only secular threats.

For presidential candidates, then, the important question is not, Who has charisma? But, how do we keep charisma in its place?

We can start by understanding how it works - and why Americans are lucky that our "charismatic" political leaders are merely glamorous.