Feature

Charisma

Do we want our political leaders to be sexy and playful, or are we content with being bored?

by
Photography by Stacy Arezou Mehrfar

• 2,969 words

Photograph by Stacy Arezou Mehrfar

It’s a rally-the-troops gathering at the Franco-Manitoban Cultural Centre in the Saint Boniface district of Winnipeg, and the January 2006 election is forty-eight hours away. Stephen Harper, a policy wonk with an angry, vituperative side, is surging in the polls and appearing, incredibly, to be a populist alternative. The lights dim, the canned music softens and then bleeds out. Liberal faithful are desperate for their man, their leader, to hit the button. The lights dim further, and the blood rises. All start to chant in unison: “Paul. Paul. Paul.”

The shaggy silhouettes of the local high school band, Rock Toxique, emerge on stage. Guitars are plugged in. Thud. Thud. Everyone knows the sound. The drummer bangs out a few notes, and the crowd—500 or more—inches forward, necks craning. Canned music is one thing, but live rock ’n’ roll reaches into the soul. The big man’s arrival is imminent. Slowly the lights rise, and there he is: from the bottom up, freshly polished loafers, pressed pants, button-down shirt, hair the same as it ever was. Ladies and gentlemen, your sexagenarian rock star, Paul Martin. The crowd, myopic as any group in such circumstances must be, roars. Martin, smiling like no rocker ever smiles, strums his guitar. Can it be? Yes, it can. He is playing air guitar, looking for all the world like a cross between a former finance minister, a wax figure from Madame Tussauds, and a dad laying it on thick for his son’s girlfriend. The band hammers out “Takin’ Care of Business.” Thud. Everyone knows that sound too, but no one admits it.

Consent, dissent, shopping for things no one needs—a certain style of shoe, a certain dress, perfume, musk—all of this can be created out of thin air. Charisma is another matter. It can come in many forms, but you’ve either got it or you don’t. On this night any thought that charisma cannot be manufactured was jettisoned for a higher emotional purpose, but long afterwards one could still hear the faint echoes of that last thud. A campaign rally, a potential watershed moment, registered to all but the true believers more as “we’re up shit creek.” Martin as finance minister had gravitas: by balancing the nation’s books, he did indeed “take care of business,” and he gained some mystique for doing so. But it could not, and did not, translate onto the bigger stage.

Stéphane Dion is facing a similar dilemma, and right now if Liberal insiders knew more about the science of charisma—okay, the social science of charisma—it wouldn’t be Michael Ignatieff or Frank McKenna or even Bob Rae they’d be pining for. It would be Bill Clinton. If Avuncular Bill were leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, on campaign stops he’d be blowing hot jazz out of a cool saxophone, and Stephen Harper, Jack Layton, Gilles Duceppe, and Elizabeth May would be quaking in their slickless boots. It wouldn’t matter much what Clinton said—he is a master at saying everything and nothing—women would still want to sleep with him and men would “feel his pain.”

Irvine Schiffer, author of the under-appreciated 1973 book Charisma: A Psychoanalytic Look at Mass Society, identified eight charismatic attributes, a combination of which successful leaders possess, or come close to possessing. They are: sexual mystique, playfulness (or hoax), a call from above, a fighting stance, a desirable social station, an innovative lifestyle, a touch of foreignness, and, unpredictably, a clear deficiency, often a physical imperfection.

Like most lists, it is as interesting for what it excludes. Intellectual probity is absent, as is a linebacker’s build or an Alexander Haig “I’m in control here” disposition. Instead, charisma comes from within, an intuitive, spontaneous projection that connects with regular men and women. Events like Martin’s “concert” or Stockwell Day arriving on a Jet Ski wearing a wetsuit to speak with reporters, were orchestrated playfulness, goofy failures in stage management. They were also desperate, the opposite of playful. And, as Pierre Trudeau, the charismatic gold standard in Canadian politics, said: never trust anyone who wants to lead too desperately. Trudeau might have loved being the top gun, but he hid it masterfully.

While most consider sex and politics to be like oil and water, they are actually more like chocolate cake and ice cream—made for each other. Whether Clinton’s “sins” in the Oval Office or Trudeau marrying outside his station (and age bracket) or his private peccadilloes, a leader that displays a certain sexual adventurism and recklessness goes a long way toward registering charismatically. Sex is a two-way street (or, if you are lucky, a multi-lane highway), and there are few needs more profound than the need to be desired. Clinton’s amateurish flings might not match up with Barbra Streisand’s public display of affection for Trudeau, but both men exuded sexual mojo, and Canadian women murmured “Lucky Margaret” as the prime ministerial couple were popping out young ones and “Lucky others” after they split up. Merging sexual mystique and playfulness, when a reporter asked Trudeau if he was going to give up his Mercedes, the prime minister replied, “Do you mean the girl or the car?” “The car,” the reporter said. To which Trudeau quipped, “I won’t give up either.”

Stephen Harper reading bedtime stories to comedian Rick Mercer was a clever political stroke. The moment depicted a leader who could be a prankster comfortable in his own skin. But neither Harper nor Dion would ever allude to any form of sexual indiscretion. Physically, they carry themselves as the Queen and Prince Philip of sexual politics, and emotionally they project an image of well-adjusted maturity, too adroit to engage in sexual frivolity that would endanger the ship of state. These are stolid, solid men but, one suspects, not much fun in the sack.

Jack Layton, who is known to wear leather on occasion, has a bit of the menace about him, but one senses that the national arena has made him less playful, less adventuresome. With a party platform that is essentially one-note, Gilles Duceppe has the greatest opportunity for exhibiting a little sexual recklessness, but, like Harper, his hair is always perfectly coiffed. Greens might have more fun, but Elizabeth May doesn’t really register on the sex meter. If not sex, then what of play or hoax?

Trudeau, again, set the bar high with stunts such as his famous pirouette, his slide down the banister at the Château Laurier, or his backflips into swimming pools. He could pull off gratuitous play with insouciant arrogance, and he did it on his own terms, spontaneously, but with, no doubt, studied panache (an exception to many rules, he was). But under “the charisma of hoax,” Schiffer writes, “Every great politician is to some degree an actor… our political figures on the national and global stages are thespians of the first order.” Or at least they should be. Unlike Trudeau, today’s leaders stand outside of hoax or gleeful mucking about. They prefer the safer practice of play by association, of surrounding themselves with people or things that exude a desirable image: Harper with Mercer or in the Toronto Maple Leafs’ locker room; Martin with U2’s Bono, again and again; Layton carrying the Barenaked Ladies’ bags. Ours might be a cautious age, but what a bore! What risk aversion. No hoax, no glory. With prepared spontaneity, the payback is minimal.

And so, there you have it: federal politics as a sexless, less-than-playful spectator sport. Is it any wonder that the commons are tuning out? The search for charisma must troll in different fields.

Afighting stance, Schiffer’s big number four. That has to be it; there is, after all, a lot of shouting going on. But what are our leaders fighting for? The territory of Quebec may not be a nation, but the people are. When the resolution was being debated, no one stood up in Parliament, looked Gilles Duceppe in the eye, and said, “You sir, are a separatist. I don’t know how you got here, but this House is in charge of the nation as a whole. So get outta town!”

Indeed, a fighting stance in Canadian politics is increasingly defined negatively. By trashing the Liberals on the “sponsorship scandal,” Harper rode the Trojan Horse of accountability into elected office. His campaign slogan, “Stand Up For Canada,” usually means (in the context of Canadian history) a battle royale against the provinces, a fight to put them in their place and to reassert Ottawa’s leadership role. The Liberals had diminished the state, we were led to believe, and it was time to set things right. Instead, time has shown that Harper is an accommodationist, “restoring the fiscal balance” through transfers to the provinces. The spring budget—in essence Martin’s asymmetric federalism on steroids—says, “I am not scary, not a libertarian, not in favour of a flat tax, not a social conservative, not even a fiscal conservative.” Defined negatively and designed to assuage, it is not a fighting stance at all.

For his part, Dion appears to be for everything. He went along with the soothing balm of the Quebecois as a nation, and then, begging at the high altar of environmentalism, eschewed partisan politics and embraced the Green Party, cooking up a deal not to run a Liberal candidate against Elizabeth May in Nova Scotia. Well, a fighting stance means fighting, even when the field is crowded. Moreover, the narcissism of minor difference usually means hating most profoundly he or she who is closest to you. For many, the Dion-May pact—she won’t field a Green candidate against Dion in Montreal—is political gamesmanship. And the sound and fury of charisma can only emerge when polarities are sought, accepted, and a fire is lit.

Jack Layton took the high road and expressed disappointment at the Liberal-Green arrangement not to duke it out in the party leaders’ playgrounds, but one sensed in his protest simple exasperation at being left out in the cold. Meanwhile, Duceppe appears denuded, stripped of any genuine federal foil and forced to accept Quebec’s sovereignty-association by increment, for which he will get little or no credit.

And the commons, the public square? There, the citizens are backing away, tired of faux battles. The people are not interested in a horse race any more than they are attracted to horse trading; they are interested in a genuine fighting stance. On two fronts—the environment and Afghanistan, at home and far away—Dion has a chance to carve out some territory of his own. A green agenda rooted in using the leveraging power of the federal surplus to support a post-fossil fuel economy, combined with environmental taxes (as disincentives for carrying on with business as usual), would represent a Great Society program. This is Dion’s call from above, and he cannot be shy about it. He must say: “I don’t care if I get arrested for chaining myself to a tree or for creating a roadblock at the gateway to Alberta’s tar sands. I don’t care what you think, there is a clear and present danger and I’m going to save the environment from the bad guys.”

Harper’s fighting stance is offshore—against the Chinese (sort of) and against the Taliban in Afghanistan. But if more body bags come home from that torrid battlefield, expect Defence Minister Gordon O’Connor to be sacrificed (see former Environment Minister Rona Ambrose), and for there to be a sudden change of heart and direction. For the time being, Harper will “support our troops,” but if he has a call from above it is nowhere in evidence. Vis-à-vis Afghanistan, Dion needs a pre-emptive strike, and it could come with the clear statement: “Actually, fighting terrorism in Kandahar and Helmand provinces is not in our national interest, a diplomatic offensive is.”

Fighting stance and call from above? We shall see.

Lessening the chance that either will emerge is the fact that our political leaders come neither from humble beginnings nor high social station. They are middle class, profoundly so, and middle-of-the-road sensibilities tend to stay rooted there. Rags to riches stories resonate, and Bill Clinton, Jean Chrétien, and Brian Mulroney used their working-class narratives to build dreams in the body politic. Just as overcoming obstacles can make leaders populist, so can descending from high station into the muck of public service. Giving up lofty cocktail parties for the grind of stump speeches on the Prairies, the tedium of constituency barbecues, the rank odour of bingo halls, is a sacrifice—the soul of public service. When Mulroney appeared too cocksure in Gucci loafers and began to strut, he forgot that people appreciate humility, not vanity. Canadians skewered him (Kim Campbell bearing the brunt of it). A strutter leaves us with nothing to do but watch and become annoyed.

Related to rising above lowly status or descending from high privilege are traits suggestive of an innovative lifestyle, something different from the prosaic toil of shuttling the little ones to hockey, lacrosse, or ballet. Harper shaking hands with his son was a public relations nightmare, but he’s a quick study and today he can be as friendly with his direct issue as he is with Rick Mercer. Dion’s dog Kyoto is cute; now the Liberal leader needs a televised recording of himself accepting policy advice from the old mutt. (The image of the relationship between Mackenzie King and his dog Pat was an endearing and enduring one.) One can imagine Elizabeth May promoting the composting toilet, and that’s fine, but in downtown Vancouver and Halifax people might also like to see her enjoying a fine bottle of claret. Layton’s got good, solid, athletic legs, and bicycle trips allow him to show them off much better than attempts to replicate iconic canoeing pictures. Duceppe is Duceppe, plus ça change.

A touch of foreignness is thought to be a boon, but given the furor over Dion holding onto his French citizenship—so much for globalization and multiculturalism—one cannot be sure. Collectively, our leaders seem, well, less than foreign, unless you count Duceppe, which would be giving in to his separatist cant.

One thing is certain: a clear deficiency, even a physical imperfection, is of paramount importance for charismatic leaders, as it is for celebrities. The problem with David Beckham is that he’s a perfect specimen, skilled and beautiful. On the charisma radar, he registers zero, great to look at but vapid. The former pope had charisma, and became more endearing, if odder, with age. The Queen (or at least Helen Mirren) has it in her way, and Chrétien had it without question.

In the political arena, it is not just that people want to be led. They crave a role, a way in, and an imperfection allows them to complete their political representatives. Everyone rallied around the hurt Chrétien when the Conservative Party released ads during the 1993 election campaign that attempted to caricature him by poking fun at his facial paralysis. (That little support fell to Dion after the Conservatives’ “This is unfair” attack ad aired this past winter is due to the clever strategy of using Michael Ignatieff as the antagonist.) Lucien Bouchard garnered enormous sympathy when his leg was amputated. Trudeau’s marital difficulties reached into homes across the nation. And Clinton’s clumsy adulterous liaisons made him profoundly human, lost and in need of help.

One of the great difficulties with our current crop of leaders is that they do not appear deficient in any particular way. They are not battle-scarred heroes rising above a certain disadvantage or beating a stigma to the ground. Dion struggles with English, but there is no one with Churchill’s lisp or Moshe Dayan’s eye patch—clear markers of disadvantage. Our leaders strike us as healthy, well-adjusted, and of average height, safe, and strangely immunized to the horrors and accidents that afflict the rest of us. They appear, in short, professional (and without particular flaw) in an arena that ought not be governed by professionals.

The big question for Canadians is, do we want charismatic leaders? Maybe we don’t. Maybe we think that charisma, like intellectualism, is suspicious. Maybe we want our political representatives to be predictable—good stewards of the economy and not much else. Maybe the Ralph Klein/Pierre Trudeau/Sir John A. Macdonald model is just too wacky. But if it’s stewardship over leadership that is desired, how are Canadians going to solve the riddles of planetary heat and aboriginal exclusion, our northern vision gap, staying mum about American exceptionalism? These are not normal times, the challenges are exceptional, and solutions must come with a punch, must elevate the masses, must shake us from the torpor of average life. Come on brothers and sisters. Bring it on!