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Barack Obama and the case for charisma

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Charismatic leaders and their followers are interdependent; they feed and energize each other. The transformational leader gives the audience hope and makes it believe that, together, they can create a better future. Winston Churchill was a charismatic leader in this sense, as was Mohandas Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Like Obama's, their rhetoric was suffused with optimism. They purveyed not fear, but shining new possibilities. Indeed, Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister, once said of Gandhi that he made India proud of herself.

Acting ability is an aspect of leadership in every arena, from the playground to the board room. But it is absolutely essential in national politics, where the only contact the average voter has with the candidate or office holder is almost always filtered through the media. Professional training isn't necessary, but only those who can act can succeed on television or the other visual media.

Playwright Arthur Miller explored this in a fascinating little book titled, "On Politics and the Art of Acting." As Mr. Miller observed, today's media require not florid acting, but the less-is-more kind. The candidate who is most likely to succeed today is the one who acts as though the camera isn't there.

In the first televised presidential debate, in 1960, the camera loved JFK's ease as much as it hated Richard Nixon's flop sweat and stage fright. In the current campaign, the camera's favorite is clearly Obama. The camera loves him, just as it once loved Bill Clinton, if only because the camera never seems to faze him.

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