Elise Matthesen elbows her way onto the front page of Making Light:
We were discussing the comments of people who reacted negatively to Barack Obama because he is a charismatic speaker, and something occurred to me. People are saying they are suspicious of Obama specifically because he’s charismatic. They’re treating Obama (and, in some other conversations, Clinton) as if politicians are gaming characters, where there are only a certain number of points to be allocated, and therefore a high Charisma must be balanced by disadvantage points elsewhere, so either they’ve got a lowered Intelligence or a weak Willpower or some other compensatory flaw. That’s not how it works, though. Not in real life. Not unless you’re limiting people to only one facet for some reason. (I won’t speculate on possible reasons, because it would be impolite.)All I want to add to this is the observation that “cynicism is a sorry kind of wisdom” may be the best line of the campaign so far.
I’m particularly struck by the way that charisma is seen as a quality, not an achievement.
(In Obama’s case, charisma may indeed be an achievement—at least, political charisma of the type he is now demonstrating—and a meaningful one, and one that he got with help. See the WSJ article about the role of his wife Michelle in the campaign—and their roles in each other’s lives. But that’s a whole another thing.)
In particular, all this focusing on Obama’s charisma is served up with a side order of “he’s a starry-eyed idealist with warm fuzzy rhetoric full of emotional appeal about uniting, but short on actual specifics and real-world plans.” I’m not sure exactly what people think University of Chicago law professors are chosen for, but I suspect that warm fuzzy rhetoric long on emotions but short on specifics isn’t real high on the checklist.
The other thing that it made me think of was something a little more insidious. Charisma is seen as a quality intrinsic to the person; it hasn’t any connection with their skills or their smarts, either, and by some logic, it might lessen the chance that they have any. (No, really—just listen to the criticisms. What they’re reminding me of right now is the notion that a woman cannot be both brainy and beautiful.) There’s this weird implication out there in the discussions about Obama’s charisma—or “messiah status,” to grab the current buzz-slap—that charisma leaves no room for a mind and a moral center. It’s the political equivalent of reducing him to his looks.
It reduces him to a feel-good candidate, instead of acknowledging him as a candidate we can feel good about precisely because he’s got smarts and skills, a mind and a moral center, and because he’s not afraid to sound passionate about what he believes in and what he proposes to do.