Daily Planet, 10/2015

The world was coming unglued in the early ‘70s.   Mighty America was all but begging the North Vietnamese for peace talks. Women’s Liberation was actually happening. The law seemed to give more rights to the criminal than the victim.

America was ready for Dirty Harry.

Movie posters featured the bore of Harry’s .44 Magnum revolver, with words superimposed on shattered glass:   “Detective Harry Callahan. He doesn’t break murder cases. He smashes them.”

In a time of insecurity, Harry was the man.   He called a punk a punk. He had no respect for pussy-footing institutions.   He knew what was wrong out there, and he knew how to fix it.

Later in the ‘70s, along came Ross Perot. When two of his employees were taken hostage in Iran, he recruited Vietnam veterans from his company and a retired colonel to lead them, and they went in and rescued the hostages. He used the State Department; he didn’t ask their permission.

A song appeared: “Where are you now when we need you, Ross Perot?”

When the going gets tough, we seem to look for a tough guy.

Certain people have a hard-to-define something that draws us to them as followers – especially in times of stress. It’s called charisma.

So, with presidential elections coming up soon, it might be a good idea for us to think about what we want in a president.   I don’t like it, but charisma – and non-charisma – will inevitably play a part in how we vote.

When we’re drawn to a candidate by his or her charisma, we should take special care. Caveat suffragator. Voter beware. Charisma cuts two ways.

We know about bad use of charisma from the likes of Hitler, Napoleon, Senator Joe McCarthy and (in my opinion) Andrew Jackson.   When they gained positions of power, they came to see themselves as all-powerful. They ignored lawful checks on their power.

Some say John Kennedy misused his charisma.   He centered power in his office.   He had a Cabinet only because departments needed heads. Congress was a necessary annoyance.

But that’s precisely the appeal of Dirty Harry and Ross Perot, isn’t it? They don’t fret over how things are supposed to be done. They just get ‘er done.

We also know examples of charisma used well. Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Lech Wałęsa led movements with the force of their personalities. They knew they had right on their side, and against all odds, they refused to give up.  

Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt used their personal charisma to lift the spirits of their people in desperate times.

Barack Obama belongs here, too. Twice he electrified voters with his expansive personality. And in the face of an intransigent Congress, he didn’t give up on his goals and promises.  

Now we come to my man: Harry Truman. Charisma?   Maybe 3.6 on a scale of 1-to-10.   Yet he’s universally held as a Great President. His strength was in decision-making – even when his decisions were unpopular. He integrated the military (angering Southern Democrats). He ordered the atomic bomb and stopping North Korean aggression. He was behind the Berlin Airlift, G.I. Bill, Marshall Plan, the formation of NATO.  (And he got rid of a Republican Congress.)

And then there’s…Donald Trump.

Imagine Dirty Harry applying for a detective job and telling them what he’ll do if he’s hired. That’s what’s going on in the GOP primary race. Trump’s target people are those fed up with what they see as America in decline – loss of respect in the world and Washington’s politicians and bureaucrats. They are in stress, and they want a savior.

In a charisma-free field of politicians, Trump is a beacon to the up-to-here crowd.

And finally, there’s Gov. Pat McCrory, bless his heart: no charisma and no savvy. A dud for all seasons.

Engage your minds, voters of North Carolina. If you do, all will be well.