I never bought that Ronald Reagan was a “great communicator.” I thought he was phony and simple-minded. I didn’t like him as president and probably wouldn’t have liked him as governor. Come to think of it, I didn’t even like him in movies.
But I suppose even I have to admit that Reagan had a certain charisma. He was warm and positive and reassuring, and he smiled a lot. And for an old guy who seemed befuddled half the time, he was oddly telegenic.
And he was elected president twice—the second time by a landslide margin that no one has come close to matching since.
Charisma and likeability are pretty subjective qualities, but I’ve been thinking about them since reading an essay whose author thought even the establishment media subconsciously wanted Trump to win this year because, whatever his many negatives, he is more interesting to watch and cover (and they sure game him enough coverage) than the duller, wonkier Clinton—or as the media marketers might put it, he has more “pop.”
I know a lot of other things have an impact on election results (and you probably have read all you ever need to about the many factors that supposedly turned this election). Still, I find it scary to think that, in the end, the candidate who wins is almost always the most charismatic or interesting or entertaining or telegenic one. Even if many of us aren’t swayed by bluster passing as charisma, well, many others are.
Let’s work backward.
2016: Donald Trump over Hillary Clinton. Admittedly, this one gets my thesis off on the wrong foot, because Hillary won the popular vote by 2.8 million. Still, Trump won where it mattered most. And many of you do not want to hear this, but he is more entertaining than Hillary. I never said that was an important qualification for president.
2012: Barack Obama over Mitt Romney. No argument here, right? Obama had the pixie dust, Romney didn’t.
2008: Barack Obama over John McCain. See above.
2004: George W. Bush over John Kerry. This one is a little tricky for a couple of reasons. The election might have been stolen from Kerry in Ohio, but even so, Bush won the popular vote. And he remained president. Now what about Kerry’s personal appeal? Maybe the Swift Boat liars put him on the defensive, but whatever the reason, Kerry was not at all the second coming of JFK he was supposed to be. Meanwhile, Bush, as much as liberals hated him and thought he wasn’t very smart, had a certain je ne sais quoi—to many, he comes off as personable and likeable in a way that brother Jeb will never. Better still, George was the nice guy on the ticket. I’ll give the nod to Bush on this one.
2000: George W. Bush over Al Gore. What I said above (just insert “Florida” for “Ohio,” and invert the popular-vote result), including the part where I admitted Bush has a likeable personality. Now, picture Gore in his earth-toned suits, repeating the word “lockbox.”
1996: Bill Clinton over Bob Dole. Dole did have a very appealing dry wit, and I actually kinda liked the way he would say “Bob Dole” instead of “I.” But he was no match for one of the most charismatic presidents of all time.
1992: Bill Clinton over George H.W. Bush. See below.
1988: George H.W. Bush over Michael Dukakis. In 1988, Bush (also the incumbent VP) had just enough fatherly appeal to ward off the boring and tentative Dukakis, who could barely bring himself to admit he was “liberal.” Four years later, Bush met his charisma match.
1984: Ronald Reagan over Walter Mondale. The country must have been feeling good or something, because this was the big landslide. I’ve already talked about Reagan; apart from Mondale’s one “aha” moment in the debate where he jumped on Reagan’s “There you go again” cliché, I don’t remember a single thing he said or did, apart from picking a woman for his running mate.
1980: Ronald Reagan over Jimmy Carter. Now I thought Carter was likeable. I guess more people thought Reagan was likeable. And what was it about those hostages?
1976: Jimmy Carter over Gerald Ford. When he was president, Ford always reminded me of my grade-school principal, who always had a blank expression and never said anything. Voters may have wanted a break from the party of Watergate, but Carter also was the more charming candidate.
This brings us back to Richard Nixon, and a very different time in history. I just wanted to point out that after Nixon, in my humble opinion, the more charismatic or entertaining candidate almost always seems to win.
Trump no doubt will keep us entertained. He also may be the most dangerous and unqualified president of all-time.
Sometimes charisma and style also come with substance and competence. Which is why I will miss Barack Obama.
Copyright 2016 Stephen Leon