Thursday, November 3, 2005

The Meaning of Charisma

barack obama rosa parks
Today I saw Barack Obama’s face in the background at the funeral service for Rosa Parks—and I said there’s a guy with total charisma. Which started me thinking: what the devil is charisma anyhow? Is it good looks? No, Everett Dirksen had it and he looked like Bert Lahr playing the Cowardly Lion in the Wizard of Oz. Charisma is more than looks. It has to be described, not merely appear. Which reminds me of the time I first saw one to whom charisma was endemic.

In the early 1950s, with Eisenhower installed as president, Minnesota’s Hubert Humphrey had determined to further add to his political base in that state. Humphrey had been born in South Dakota and was a combination Irishman and Norwegian, a druggist’s son who transplanted to the state and who in the ‘50s always felt like he needed political shoring up. He felt rather isolated from the Catholic community of Minnesota and Catholics held great sway in certain areas sorely needed by Humphrey to be added to his base. One was the city of St. Paul. Irish Catholic it was, and Democratic, too, but it was not very sure about Humphrey. He was too oracular, too emotional and too dramatic a speaker for the good burgers there. So early in 1953 Humphrey found what he thought was a solution. He would invite the newest U.S. Senator to come to St. Paul and make an address—not a political speech, but a civic one in which the key leaders of the Catholic community would be invited, starting with the archbishop of St. Paul-Minneapolis (who was rather cool to Humphrey). Kennedy’s family was a crown jewel (so viewed) of U.S. Catholicism: his father, the former ambassador to England who enchanted isolationist Catholics by railing against Great Britain, his brother, Joe, a lost war hero. But I needn’t tell you about all this, need I?

So he invited John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts to come in the night before and address a civic breakfast in St. Paul the next morning. It so happened I was to cover the speech for a wire service and I got to the St. Paul Hotel early in hopes of interviewing the new Senator. Instead I found Humphrey running the corridors trying to find Kennedy. “He was supposed to check in here last night,” he told me, “but he hasn’t shown up, didn’t take his room.” It was clear what he was thinking: Good God Almighty, here I have gathered everybody, the mayors of St. Paul and Minneapolis, the archbishop of St. Paul-Minneapolis, the presidents of 3M, Minneapolis Moline and all the other companies and no Kennedy.

The breakfast started on time with a prayer from the Archbishop and I thought I could see Humphrey’s lips moving in silent prayer that Kennedy—the many everyone was there to see and hear—would show up. No Kennedy. We drank our fruit juice. The waiters brought the eggs and bacon. Then, in the back door he came: a pencil-thin guy with a brush of reddish hair, a shy but diffident style, walking slowly to the speaker’s table. Humphrey with great relief led a standing ovation for the very late speaker. The Archbishop wiped his lips from the napkin and waited for Kennedy to explain what in the world took him so long, where he was, etc.

The place hushed. Kennedy stood up, thanked Humphrey for his lavish introduction and nodded to the Archbishop and assembled guests. Then, waiting until there was not a sound, he said something like this. “My staff made a mistake and booked me not at the St. Paul Hotel but at the Leamington in Minneapolis which is where I slept the night after arriving at midnight. But let me tell you, taking a cab from Minneapolis to St. Paul involves a great deal of money.”

Everyone laughed nervously, knowing that this slim young man was the heir to hundreds of millions. “As the cab neared the St. Paul Hotel,” said Kennedy, “I noticed the fare was very large. Very large. I could scrape up enough for a very good tip. I pondered giving him a big tip and telling him to vote Democratic.” They tittered. “But then I remembered,” said Kennedy, “what my father would have done.” There was an expectant hush. Joe Kennedy was the shrewdest, self-made multi-millionaire in the ‘30s.

“And so,” said John Kennedy, “I gave him no tip and told him to vote Republican.”

The story brought down the house and that morning Humphrey was seen sighing and and sighing and sighing: sighing with relief that Kennedy had showed but also sighing with satisfaction that he had turned what could have been a huge embarrassment into a triumph with a deprecating but gentle reminder of his father’s wily nature.

Which taught me then that this was the essence of charisma. Not just looks, although Kennedy assuredly had it. Not just the confidence that wealth brings and Kennedy certainly had that. It is the grace that comes with self-assurance: grace that Kennedy had, Reagan had and I would aver that George W. Bush has, if I may say so. It certainly is what Barack Obama has. Long before Obama came to the Senate, the first African American senator since Reconstruction served. He was a tall, good-looking lawyer, former attorney general of the state of Massachusetts, Edward Brooke. Everything that is needed for successful candidacy, Brooke had. He had superb gifts—but he didn’t have that indefinable self-confident something.

And I would abjure my Republican colleagues to get out of the way whenever Barack Obama decides to run for something else. I presume it would be the vice presidency at first—but it certainly will ultimately involve the presidency at some future date.


  1. He was elected to the Senate only because Blair Hull and Ryan proved such fiascos.

    Otherwise I don't think he was ever all that popular in Chicago despite the charm and charisma.

    I like him but at some point he's going to have deliver something.

    Luck and charm can take you far... but not that far.

  2. Obama voted in against shifting funding from the Alaskan bridge to nowhere to provide hurrican victim releif.

    The press just ignores his horrible, and quite typical voting, because he seems rather pleasant.

    It would be interesting if the press would actually publish the news.