What charisma is, and how to get it

Republican presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, President Barack Obama and Texas Governor Rick Perry.
Michael Reynolds, Scott Olson,Getty Images/Emmanuel Dunand

CHARISMA is a word that's mentioned a lot when discussing political candidates. Can charisma be precisely measured? Or is something we simply know when we see it? Our Cover Story is reported now by Susan Spencer of "48 Hours":

It was an unforgettable moment of forgetting . . .

"I will tell ya, it's three agencies of government when I get there that are gone: Commerce, Education, and, ah, what's the other one there, let's see...?" said GOP presidential candidate Rick Perry.


For 53 excruciating seconds in a pivotal debate, the Texas Governor lost both his train of thought, and something much more important:

"I think you can see an instant where charisma was destroyed," said professor Joseph Nye of the Harvard Kennedy School. "Perry is attractive, handsome, comes on strong, 'I'm a leader,' so forth. So I think there was a beginning of a feeling that Perry was quite charismatic. And then when he had this fumble of not being able to remember the names, that quite seriously undercut that.

"So you could almost see the building charisma which was punctured."

Nye says, though we may not like to admit it, winning personalities do win elections.

"Charisma is a sense of personal magnetism that some people have," he said. "There is an attractiveness that leads some people to be able to get others to follow them by their personality."

Mark Oppenheimer, who teaches at Yale, has studied the subject: "Most American voters ultimately don't vote on specific policy questions. They're responding to something, and it's often charisma. . . . It's whom they like."

But what exactly IS charisma?

"It's from the Greek, and it generally refers to a gift, to something freely given, something you didn't necessarily have to earn or deserve," said Oppenheimer. "But it's this talent, or unique capability that you have. It came from the gods, really."

On the campaign trail it can be simply divine.

The power of charisma - that personal connection - is why Rick Santorum glad-handed his way through all 99 Iowa counties . . . why Mitt Romney has focused like a laser on projecting naturalness and warmth.

But when it comes to genuine charisma, Republican candidates have a tough act to follow:

"I will not make age an issue in this campaign. I am not going to exploit for political purposes my opponent's youth and inexperience..."

"Reagan had this extraordinary ability to use humor to project this warmth and personality," said Nye.

In fact, in a new "Sunday Morning" poll ranking the most charismatic presidents, Reagan came in third behind Bill Clinton and John F. Kennedy, but first among Republicans.

With the bar that high, does a talented but bland politician have a prayer?

"We've had low-charisma presidents," said Oppenheimer. "I don't think anyone ever accused Papa Bush of being particularly charismatic. I think the younger Bush, while he was Kryptonite for some voters, he was also compelling to others. He projected a certain kind of ease with himself, a certain kind of humility. But his father, I don't think anyone found his father particularly compelling as a persona."

But charismatic or not, George H. W. Bush did win . . . which supports Oppenheimer's view that charisma - like beauty - is in the eye of the beholder.

"Look, nobody has universal charisma," said Oppenheimer. "I think Barack Obama connects with a lot of people as charismatic, but obviously there are people who loath Barack Obama. And the same thing is true of Reagan, and the same thing was true of John F. Kennedy."

It's true of non-politicians as well. Who do you consider charismatic: George Clooney? Derek Jeter? Oprah? How about the Cookie Monster?

So what about YOU? Do you think YOU have charisma? Wouldn't we all like to believe that we just radiate magnetic charm ALL the time?

Well, at MIT's Media Lab, researchers say that with a little device they actually can use science to measure your charisma . . . assuming, of course, that you have some to measure.