The Perils of Charisma

Kennedy's team treated the bureaucracy as the enemy, launching a counterinsurgency that centralized authority in the White House, and placed a dangerous amount of power in one man's hands.

That ideal gives deeper meaning to a term that became popular in and around the Kennedy presidency. James David Barber claims that “charisma” was “a pawed-over concept Kennedy brought back to clarity.” But that was hardly the case. Kennedy’s admirers stretched and cheapened the sociological term adopted, half a century earlier, by Max Weber. Yet there was an unnoticed justice in the application of this word to the New Frontier. Weber distinguished three kinds of authority—traditional, relying on the inertia of sacred custom; legal, based on contractual ties; and charismatic, based on the special gifts of a single ruler. Charismatic leadership is transitory—the “grace” is attached to one person, who must constantly revalidate it in action (“existentially,” according to the ’60s jargon). It serves, amid the collapse of order or old ways, to bind together a new effort—the embodiment of a cause in George Washington or Mao Tse-tung. The founders of states, or of religious orders (a favorite Weber illustration), have to exert personal authority, since they have no preexisting majesty of office or sanction of law to draw upon.

Kennedy’s personalized leadership consciously distanced itself from the “traditional” father-king role of Eisenhower and the “legal” order of bureaucratic committees. Power came from Kennedy’s person, according to Schlesinger. It had to be displayed, deployed, brought to bear. His “cool” was his program, style and vigor his credentials. Kennedy’s term in office was later studied as just one more stage in the development of an imperial presidency. But his followers saw it as a radical break with the institutional passivity of the post-Roosevelt presidency. They were returning to the last president who had been charismatic in Weber’s sense. Franklin Roosevelt, given special powers to deal with the crisis of the Depression, broke free of tradition, defied the two-term rule, took on himself the sacred mantle of war leader, and made policy by sheer personal fiat. Aspiring to a Rooseveltian presidency, Kennedy hoped, without the benefit of depression or war, to assume emergency powers and assert a ruling charisma.

Sorensen’s account of the administration is gleefully crisis-oriented. He admiringly counts 15 of them in Kennedy’s first eight months as president. The atmosphere is perfectly caught by [David] Halberstam [in The Best and the Brightest]: Kennedy bequeathed to Johnson “crisis-mentality men, men who delighted in the great international crisis because it centered the action right there in the White House—the meetings, the decisions, the tensions, the power—they were movers and activists, and this was what they had come to Washington for, to meet these challenges.” Kennedy had come to office sounding the alarm over a missile-gap crisis—as he had sounded the alarm in 1940 over England’s airplane-gap crisis at the beginning of World War II. (A. J. P. Taylor has demonstrated that the first gap was no more real than the later one.) … Since the charismatic leader’s special powers grow from special dangers, the two feed on each other. For some crises to be overcome, they must first be created …

Insofar as the charismatic leader asserts an entirely personal authority, he delegitimates the traditional and legal authorities. Attempting to prop up the Saigon regime, Kennedy’s ambassadors to Vietnam and advisers actually called its slim claims further into question. And the same was true, in less degree, of the bureaus and agencies at home. While deferring to the FBI himself, Attorney General Robert Kennedy made clear to others that it could not be relied on for the protection of civil-rights workers. While expressing formal regard for “Secretary Rusk” (never, even in private, was it “Dean”), the president made clear his slight regard for the State Department. By relying on a few “generalists,” Kennedy signaled the lack of authority in most branches of his administration.

Charismatic authority is constructive only when it builds order from chaos. When it tries to supersede continuing forms of authority, it destabilizes despite itself. The more insistent Kennedy’s personal call to follow him became, the less compelling was any order that did not issue directly from him …

Charisma, in the Weberian sense, is not transferable—even to members of the “graced” leader’s own family. But later presidents would be measured by the expectations Kennedy raised. He did not so much elevate the office as cripple those who held it after him. His legend has haunted them; his light has cast them in shadow.

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