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Mallary: Charisma

Charm, personality, appeal, magnetism, allure; these are just a few of the synonyms for charisma that my thesaurus coughed up. Political futures often turn on these ingredients — or the lack of them. Nowadays we expect some combination of these from all our candidates. Hillary Clinton is short on charisma. Just ask her. She had this to say in a recent debate. “I am not” she said, “a natural politician, in case you haven’t noticed, like my husband or President Obama... I have said before — and it won't surprise any body to hear me say it — this is not easy for me." There is something endearing about this plea for understanding. It may be the closest Hillary can come to being charismatic.

On the other hand, Bernie Sanders scores pretty high on the charisma meter. Like Howard Dean before him Bernie has taken his Vermont show on the road to raucous acclaim and even more success. Contrary to many reports of prickliness, Bernie has developed an avuncular appeal — your opinionated older uncle who just happens to run for president.

But what of the 2016 Republican crop: among the early multitude, the charisma quotient was not high. Lindsey Graham has some. But it didn’t get him very far. Chris Christie? Yes, some. Carly Fiorina? Jeb Bush? I don’t think so. But what of the three survivors?

John Kasich has some, styling himself as a homey Midwesterner. Ted Cruz has some. He presents charismatically enough, with a spirited defense of hardline patriotism and religion.

And lastly we have Donald Trump; living proof that charisma is partly in the eyes of the beholder. Though he may finally face some backlash, he has successfully projected as a guy an older white male — who feels disenfranchised — might kick back with while sitting in the parlor of Trump’s 747. They love him not in spite of but because of all that money. And Trump — along with Cruz — has tapped into an anti-intellectual tradition with deep roots in this country.

We can see and feel charisma. And we know it when we feel it. It can transcend what we like or dislike in a politician. While this appeal is not new in our politics, contemporary media increases its power exponentially.

This does not encourage substantive debate. Deft one-liners and gotchas are the order of the day, while thoughtful discourse circles the drain.

Peter Mallary is a writer, editor and former legislator from the Upper Valley.
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