50 years of charismatic authority.

This past September 26 was the fiftieth anniversary of the first Kennedy/Nixon debate in the 1960 Presidential Campaign. It is famous for being the first televised Presidential debate, and subsequently as an example of the influence television could have on a campaign.

Everyone knows the story: Nixon looked haggard and ill, Kennedy looked fit and healthy. Some say that Kennedy’s appearance in that debate was what won him the election. I feel that is only partially true–what helped Kennedy here was not just his good looks, but mainly his charisma, which was now being shown to a wider audience than in any previous election.

In fact, to me, this debate marks the moment when, because of television, charisma emerged as the most powerful force in U.S. politics. Nixon represented what Max Weber called “Legal Domination“, whereas Kennedy represented “Charismatic Domination“. My view is that Kennedy’s victory demonstrated that television had now enabled charismatic domination to come to the fore.

The real question, I guess, is: was this a good thing or a bad thing?


  1. I think it's a bad thing.Ask most Americans who the two greatest Presidents since World War II are, and they'll probably tell you Kennedy and Reagan. And what are they remembered for? Mostly for making a kick-ass speech in Berlin.I'm not saying they didn't have real accomplishments, although I dare say that for centre-left Americans Lyndon Johnson was far more significant in a substantive manner than Kennedy. But their accomplishments are not what they are remembered for; to a large extent accomplishments are not what Presidents are measured by any longer. They are judged as 'national cheerleaders', as someone put it. And this has even been institutionalised by the US government in the form of putting Kennedy on the half-dollar. Nixon in 1960 was clearly more qualified than Kennedy (although Kennedy was not unqualified), and he accomplished quite a bit as President, but he is barely remembered positively at all (of course, I'm sure Watergate is part of that as well). In most elections since 1960, it is the less qualified, less experienced, but more charismatic and good-looking person who almost always wins: Obama over McCain, Bush over Gore and Kerry, Clinton over old Bush and old Dole, Reagan over Mondale [how did they think he had a snowball's chance in Hell] and Carter, and so forth… And just as the Democrats learnt to stop nominating dorky guys like Gore and Mondale, I think Republicans will soon learn to stop nominating ancient war/political veterans and start nominating people like…Palin or Huckabee. Good thing? I think not.

What's your stake in this, cowboy?