The fated charm of the candidates

As the U.S. presidential election campaign enters its final month, the charm crusade of the two candidates reaches its peak.

What is this thing called charm, as employed by politicians?

It is, of course, the ability to make people like you by appearing warm and appealing, without sacrificing the authoritativeness that any leader must carry.

Hillary Clinton is all smiles and laughter, the attraction of a friendly face. Trump also smiles, but his persona is masculine in the sense of relying on dominance gestures such as raised arms and strutting of the stage.

Now he has further undermined his likeability to women, by admitting to – although apologising for – debasing comments made about a female associate some years ago.


Within a parliamentary system, leaders who are not directly elected by the people don’t need to rely so much on popular appeal. They’re anointed by their colleagues, who are immune to the crowd-pleasing techniques that Clinton and Trump display.

Therese May and her predecessor David Cameron in the UK, Angela Merkel in Germany – these leaders are not required by the job to show lovability.

Tony Blair bucked this general rule. His boyish good looks and winning smile were no doubt a factor in his ascendency to the prime ministership of Britain.

Voters adored him, but as his policies became unpopular, love turned to hatred. Blair’s charm disappeared. His public appearances these days reveal him as unsmiling, haunted, aware of people’s disgust.

We’re familiar too with the harried, defensive persona of his successor David Cameron as the difficulties of fulfilling election promises took their toll on his popularity.


This, then, is the weakness of political charm. It’s useful for getting elected. After that, it rubs thin. Policies, a track record, and the ability to get things done matter far more.

In Australia, former prime minister John Howard, who led the nation for 11 years, and former New South Wales premier Bob Carr, leader for 10, were both in their early careers regarded as leadership non-contenders.

They lacked the X-factor, the magic dust. Each owned a single appealing physical feature – Carr had a great voice, Howard a wide friendly smile – but that was it.

In the end, their political skills and acumen carried the day and assured their notable longevity.


If Clinton is elected in November 2016, her charm will wane, along with the smile. Clinton is likely to be a one-term leader. In the past 70 years, neither party in the U.S. has been able to deliver consecutive presidents who served two terms.

If Trump seizes the White House, his ability to woo a crowd will likewise evaporate as a political asset. As with Tony Blair, the man’s stage persona may carry him across the line, but not much further.