Frederick Allen over at Forbes (as well as some commenters here) took issue with my claims about charisma, specifically about various presidential losers having at one time having being described as charismatic. So I figured I should do some work to back it up. I think the claim holds up, although I couldn't find enough evidence to probably convince everyone.
It's not all that easy to search for (search on "Richard Nixon charisma" and you get lots of articles about JFK, and pre-1980 stuff is harder to come by from basic public searches), but here's a sampling. Also I get the sense that Kennedy brought the word "charisma" into politics in the first place, so when Nixon was popular and telegenic (yes, he was -- Checkers was a big success) early in his career, no one would have thought to use that word about him. I should say right away that most of the references I came across for Johnson, Nixon, and George HW Bush were about their lack of charisma, but we all know that; my claim is only that they "gained" charisma when they were winning. So here are a bunch of citations. Also, while I didn't include it below, I did find one management book that referred to "charismatic leaders like Nikolai Lenin and Lyndon Johnson." For whatever that's worth.
September 1968 Headline:
And so in Mr. Nixon we [have] the only politician forward-looking enough to recognize and understand the New Charisma.Jules Whitcover's The Resurrection of Richard Nixon
He had more charisma than anyone ever gave him credit for.Lyndon Johnson
From The Making of the Prime Minister. a 1965 book:
Alone among British politicians, he [a Tory politician; sorry, don't know who] has something of the Lyndon Johnson mass magic, or charisma, in the popular phrase.A Texas constituent who dealt with Johnson in person is quoted:
He had that charisma.Jimmy Carter
Of the four presidents I made the claim about, Carter is the easiest; there are plenty of references to him as a candidate who won on charisma, not issues. Including:
William Loeb, in a (NYT) August 1976 op-ed about why Carter and Reagan did well:
This attitude...[is] more likely to result, especially since the advent of television, from the fact that a premium is put on charisma.After a Carter-Ford debate, a student is quoted:
I think as a leader, a country has got to have a man with a certain amount of charisma...Carter has that so much more than Ford does.Business Week, in 1976:
The charisma that has swept Jimmy Carter to a series of primary election triumphs...
George H.W. Bush
A John Oates op-ed, November 1988
Michael Dukakis may not have the synthetic charisma of George Bush, but this election should be about character.In 1974:
He has what political oddsmakers like to call "magnatism," that being a kind of aura about him that falls just a notch below actual "charisma."
I didn't search for anyone else, but I did come across:
Frank Rich says in September 2004:
The young vet's charisma so upset Richard Nixon that he schemed with Charles Colson and Bob Haldeman to counter Mr. Kerry with a pro-Vietnam attack dog:Barry Goldwater
Tom Wicker in September 1964:
Perhaps first among his assets are the Senator's own charm and charisma...
So: basically, Carter had plenty of charisma; the other three had it for just fleeting moments when everything was going perfectly -- all three have lots and lots of references to not having charisma.
But we already know that. And there's an excellent explanation for why Carter had far more than Johnson, Nixon, and Bush, which is the thing that the three all had in common: the vice presidency. It's an office where charisma goes to die; by occupying the office, you're already a loser (and of course Johnson and Bush got there by losing nominations, as did other VP non-charismatics Hubert Humphrey and Al Gore -- although I couldn't find much on Gore pre-1992, for whatever that's worth).
Now, I don't want to say that you have to win a nomination to get charisma: John Lindsey, John Connally, Bob Kerrey, and Jesse Jackson, among others, all were said to have it, and others with similar accomplishments were said to not have it. So pre-presidential campaign, some are said to have it and some are not. But I'd bet that virtually all presidential nominees who hadn't previously served as Veep had it, at least for a few fleeting moments (and far more if they won), and even the former VPs got a bit of it when things really went their way.
So while there are other ways of getting charisma, I'll stick with my first cut: winning causes charisma, not the other way around.
My favorite quotation, by the way, is the Al Capp one about Nixon. It suggests how adaptable the concept is: if someone is winning who everyone already agreed doesn't have it, then he must have some other, superior form of it.