Obama has charisma but does he have character?

Sat, Aug 2, 2008, 01:00

Whereas Barack Obama exudes glamour, John McCain comes across as likeable and reliable, writes Breda O'Brien.

BARACK OBAMA has conquered Europe, but the conventional wisdom is that it won't make any difference at home. I disagree. Obama is one of the shrewdest operators around when it comes to his public image. I suspect that he undertook his tour now so that he could present himself as an international statesman, but still have ample time to be seen to be taking the concerns of ordinary Americans to heart.

Lingering in the background will be those iconic images in Berlin. Ostensibly indifferent to the people in the old countries, Americans still hanker after being loved again. Obama can deliver that in Europe.

In a celebrity-obsessed age, Obama has a vital edge over his rival, John McCain. Both Obama and his wife Michelle exude glamour. Mere celebrity can be attained by a stint on Big Brother. Glamour is much, much more. It stops people in their tracks, and makes them aspire to share in the graced world of the cool and confident people who have it.

Mind you, the word glamour originated from a Scots word for grammar, but had overtones of magic. Being "under a glamour" was to be under the influence of the fairy people, and had the somewhat unfortunate connotation that you would eventually waste away, still pining for another world which you could not enter.

If you detect a hint of scepticism about Obama, you are right. One of the qualities which most appealed to me at the beginning of his rise to international fame was the way that he was able to appeal, without irony, to people's desire to be better than they are.

He has the knack of making people believe that they can change, and that the world can change, too. I still believe that to be a precious quality. It is a difficult one to pull off in Irish politics, because everyone knows all belonging to you. Fianna Fáil, the masters at being re-elected, have settled quite understandably for being skilful managers. Leave the vision thing to others, and borrow one on occasions when it is absolutely necessary.

Obama appeals to the idealistic, the ones in search of the shining city on the hill. He evokes echoes of Kennedy's Camelot. But without wishing to repeat Hillary Clinton's rather poisonous comments about assassination, it is an open question whether the glamour of Camelot would have lasted if John F Kennedy had not died as he did. Would he have become as revered as Ted Kennedy is by liberals and as despised by conservatives?

Glamour requires a certain distance, an ability to maintain an illusion. It allows people to see in him what they want to see, and Obama does little to dispel what may be fantasies. Of course he takes positions on issues, but his major attraction is not his political platform, but himself. He is able to convey an image of someone who will reconcile, who will move America beyond its less than salubrious racist past.

At the risk of being dour and sour, does anyone remember that George Dubya ran on a bipartisan platform and was going to be the great reconciler? After Al Gore conceded, Bush pointed to the Texas House of Representatives, and declared it a home to bipartisan co-operation. Yes, that was a long time ago, but people believed it at the time.

Obama also has charisma. It is a different quality to glamour. Charisma inspires people to follow, sometimes with an almost irrational devotion. Obamamania would seem to meet that criterion. Again, though, there is a shadow side. The word charism originally meant a gift or grace from god.

Yet as Fr Darcy, a character in the aptly-named Glamorous Powersby Susan Howatch, warns, "Beware of those powers which come from God but which can so easily be purloined by the Devil!"

The German sociologist, Max Weber, defined charisma as "a certain quality of an individual personality by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural or exceptional powers or qualities". Of course, he used it to describe that ultimate charismatic leader, who inspired millions to follow him over the brink - Adolf Hitler.

Obama is no screaming megalomaniac, but he does stir up strong passions, both positive and negative. Certainly there are followers who appear to be ready to lie down and die for him. Equally, there are others, in that great tradition of American paranoia, who think he is a closet Muslim ready to destroy everything America stands for.

McCain does not have much glamour, and what he does have as a war hero is somewhat faded. Yet somehow, even though he can be incredibly inconsistent, people seem to feel that they know better where they stand with him. For example, he seemed to endorse Al Gore's ambitious plan to source all energy from "Earth-friendly sources" in 10 years, then withdrew. Yet he still manages to convey reliability, a sense of having been tested, unlike Obama.

What McCain has is likeability, a quality that Reagan had in spades, at least for Americans. Obama may not be so quite so well endowed in that department. Polls show that older women are not at all as enamoured of him as younger women. He has a serious problem with women over 50, a category that traditionally turns out to vote. Perhaps they are not so ensnared by the glamour and charisma. Or perhaps they have just become too jaded and cynical.

His fans often compare Obama to Lincoln. Certainly, both delivered wonderful, inspiring speeches, but Lincoln was lucky to live before a media age. He had a strangely high-pitched voice, which got higher when he was nervous. He was quite startlingly ugly, and cadaverously thin. He suffered from crippling depression and self-doubt. He did have one advantage. He towered over his contemporaries. Apparently, his height also meant that he looked great from a distance on a big, white horse. A very long distance. Glamorous, he was not. But he did have another important quality. He had character.

I suspect many Obama sceptics are like me, hoping that he does not just have glamour and charisma, but character. Without vision, the people perish. Without character, a visionary merely leads people up the garden path.

...