Mar 25, 2024

Charisma: More Elusive than Bigfoot

What does it take to have what it takes?

By Ed Goldman

I used to think that having charisma was equivalent to having good hair. This is because the first time I heard the word, when I was nine years old, it was used to describe a trait possessed by the newly elected President John F. Kennedy.

JFK had a lot of signature traits—his wit, his habit of slamming his hands into the lower pockets of his suit jacket, the stabbing gestures he’d use in his public speaking, his “vigah” (as expressed in his distinctive Boston accent). But one of his more familiar gestures was using his left hand to smooth a nagging forelock onto the right side of his forehead whether it had been dislodged from his coif by a breeze or an emphatic head shake. This helped give his hair a personality of its own. What one might call hairisma.

Edgy Cartoon

Orange is the new blecccch

Some of this fascination with Kennedy’s richly thick tresses might have been in contrast to his predecessor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, who sported a heroically bald head. Then again, no one commented on the hair volume of Kennedy’s rival for the Presidency and Ike’s veep, Richard M. Nixon. While Nixon had a decent head of hair, it looked as though an oil slick had been shaped into a top-knot toupee—one which made him look, all his political life, like a man losing his hair, which he apparently wasn’t, even at the end of his life.

To be sure, Harry S Truman, Eisenhower’s predecessor, had nice hair, but tautly trimmed to the point of resembling the Regular Boy’s Haircut, illustrated and so named on old barbershop posters showing you your style choices. Others included the Businessman’s Haircut, the Flattop, the Flattop with Fenders (I’m not joking) and the Butch, which had nothing to do with the legendary outlaw whose surname was Cassidy. Nor with one’s personal orientation. 

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who ran the country prior to Truman, had much of his hair, it appeared— but people were more focused on his pince-nez glasses, flamboyant cigarette holder and whether he could actually stand on his own, since press photographers in those days rarely showed him in the wheelchair he used because of the polio he’d contracted at the age of 39.

JFK was the 20th century’s first cool-hair President. Other post-Kennedy Presidents have also had OK hair (Ronald Reagan’s would have featured well in ads for the proper application of Pomade). But until the 21t century saw the emergence of Donald Trump, the POTUS’s hair really didn’t become a focal point. Trump’s, of course, stirred debate over whether it was real, a rug or a series of orange washcloths haphazardly woven by drunken ferrets. If he wins again in November, God save the republic, maybe he’ll have the ferrets take a bow.

So: If it has nothing to do with someone having cool hair, what is charisma?

Merriam-Webster says it’s “a personal magic of leadership arousing special popular loyalty or enthusiasm for a public figure.” Well, what if you think someone’s charismatic but he or she isn’t a public figure? We’ve all met people in our lives who exuded that “personal magic.” If we were lucky, it was (or is) one or both of our parents, a sibling, a spouse, a friend who enlivens every encounter just by seeming more “present” than everyone else in the room. Sometimes we call people like that “characters”—or, perhaps a bit condescendingly, “wonderful.”

And sometimes, those people we know with the most charisma turn out to be the ones we can take in only short-to-medium doses. Their outsized personas may tend to remind us that we’re not all that interesting. This may be the cruelest irony about charisma: You can’t take your eyes off those who have it, but you can’t take it for very long. Or as they say about male-pattern baldness: Hair today, gone tomorrow.

Looking for a Great Gift?

Ed Goldman's column appears almost every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. A former daily columnist for the Sacramento Business Journal, as well as monthly columnist for Sacramento Magazine and Comstock’s Business Magazine, he’s the author of five books, two plays and one musical (so far).