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On March 4, 1933, Roosevelt gave his now famous inaugural address, promising that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”

Within days he had secured legislation guaranteeing the banks, and on March 12, he took to the radio for the first of his fireside chats.

“When the people find out that they can get their money ---— that they can get it when they want it ---— the phantom of fear will soon be laid,” he soothed an anxious nation . “I can assure you, it is safer to keep your money in a re-opened bank than under your mattress.”

When banks re-opened the next morning, the lines were gone, as Robert A. Caro recounted in the first volume of his biography of Lyndon Johnson, “The Path to Power.” People put money back in, so much that on the first day after the chat, deposits outweighed withdrawals by $10 million.

It was the legislation, but mostly, Mr. Caro writes : “Their confidence was restored by his confidence. When he smiled on the crisis, it seemed to vanish.”

Would we call this a cult of personality?

Today that term is all around Barack Obama---— perhaps because there seems so little other way to explain how a first-term senator has managed to dazzle his way to front-runner in the race for the presidency, how he walks on water for so many supporters, and how the mere suggestion that he is, say, mortal, risks vehement objection, or at least exposing the skeptic as deeply uncool.

It’s far too soon to know what role Mr. Obama will play in history, let alone whether he can be compared to F .D .R., or, as he is most commonly, to John F. Kennedy. But it is perhaps time to look more closely at this label that attaches to him, and how it has been applied in the past.

The “cult of personality” is used in the pejorative. But recast as a different name --— cal l it charisma --— and, as Roosevelt and other examples show, it can be a critical element of politics and its practical cousin, governance . It just can’t be the only element.

“Today, attacks on the cult of personality seem really to mean attacks on the ability to make speeches that inspire,” Mr. Caro said in an interview. “But you only have to look at crucial moments in the history of our time to see how crucial it was to have a leader who could inspire, who could rally a nation to a standard, who could infuse a country with confidence, to remind people of the justice of a cause.”

Still, Mr. Caro adds a caveat: “That doesn’t always translate into a really great presidency.”

So what does it look like?

Charisma, as defined by the early sociologist Max Weber, was one of three “ideal types” of authority — the others were legal, as in a bureaucracy, and traditional, as in a tribe — and rested upon a kind of magical power and hero worship.

That definition was, of course, unsuitable for modern times, as one of Weber’s many interpreters, Arthur M . Schlesinger Jr., wrote in “The Politics of Hope.” Its use became metaphorical, as Mr. Schlesinger wrote, “a chic synonym for heroic, or for demagogic, or even just for “popular.’”

But it was also a coolness that Norman Mailer captured in Kennedy — for whom Mr. Schlesinger became a kind of official hero-worshiper — writing about the 1960 Democratic convention in Los Angeles. Mr. Mailer described how Kennedy’s convertible, then his suntan and his teeth, emerged before a camera- filled crowd in Pershing Square, “the prince and the beggars of glamour staring at one another across a city street.”

There was, Mr. Mailer wrote: “an elusive detachment to everything he did . One did not have the feeling of a man present in the room with all his weight and all his mind. Johnson gave you all of himself, he was a political animal, he breathed like an animal, sweated like one, you knew his mind was entirely absorbed with the compendium of political fact and maneuver; Kennedy seemed at times like a young professor whose manner was adequate for the classroom but whose mind was off in some intricacy of the Ph.D. thesis he was writing.”

By any definition, the charismatic leader emerges at a time of crisis or national yearning, and perhaps a vacuum in that nation’s institutions. Mr. Schlesinger wrote in 1960 of a “new mood in politics,” with people feeling “that the mood which has dominated the nation for a decade is beginning to seem thin and irrelevant.” There was, he wrote, “a mounting dissatisfaction with the official priorities, a deepening concern with our character and objectives as a nation.”

That might well describe the climate Obama supporters feel now.

Alan Wolfe, the directorr of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Political Life at Boston College, says Mr. Obama is simply — understandably — making an emotional appeal to those yearnings. “Politics is about policy, but it’s also about giving people some kind of sense of participating in a common venture with their fellow citizens,” Mr. Wolfe said.

Philosophers call it “civil religion,” using the language of religion and elevation to talk about your country . A classic example is Ronald Reagan’s summoning of the “city on a hill.” That, Professor Wolfe said, was the parallel Mr. Obama was hinting at when he talked about Reagan as a transformative leader.

“A soft civil religion is something our country desperately needs at a time of deep partisanship,” Mr. Wolfe said. “He wants to go back to the Reagan years as a Democrat, with Democratic policies.”

But others see in this same language a more cynical cult of personality.

“What is troubling about the campaign is that it’s gone beyond hope and change to redemption,” said Sean Wilentz, a historian at Princeton (and a longtime friend of the Clintons). “It’s posing as a figure who is the one person who will redeem our politics . And what I fear is, that ends up promising more from politics than politics can deliver.”

From the day Mr. Obama announced his candidacy, he has billed it as a movement, and himself as the agent of generational change. He has mocked his rival, Hillary Rodham Clinton, for accusing him of raising “false hopes.” “We don’t need leaders who are telling us what we cannot do,” he said in New Hampshire. “We need a president who can tell us what we can do! What we can accomplish! Where we can take this country!”


The NEW YORK TIMES. Newspaper

Week in Review Section (Pgs. 1 & 4)

Sunday , February 17, 2008

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