I can recall the exact date that I saw my most memorable president: October 5, 1960. My mother had loaded me and my two older brothers into our ’56 Chevy for a short ride into downtown Louisville, Kentucky. Arriving early for a political rally, she placed us directly in front of the podium for a campaign speech by Senator John F. Kennedy. As a 4-year-old, I paid little attention to what the candidate said, but I certainly remember the excitement surrounding his appearance. As Catholics, we were drawn to his religion, and I’m sure my mother was attracted by his dashing good looks. It was like seeing a movie star and the pope embodied in one person.
From that moment, I was hooked on presidents. While other little girls in my class checked out books from the school library on puppies and horses, I borrowed children’s biographies of Washington and Lincoln. Nothing pleased me more than to earn a GW or Honest Abe stamp on my homework paper. I sifted through my parents’ scrapbook to discover newspaper clippings of Franklin Roosevelt’s funeral, and I listened in rapt attention to their stories of how he saved them and our country from the Great Depression’s ravages. They mourned when he died, and we prayed for JFK at our parish church on November 22, 1963. A few weeks later the pastor distributed holy cards with the slain president’s photo on the front and a prayer for his “eternal rest” on the back. My mother kept the card in her prayer book until her own passing decades later.
This quartet of chief executives, along with a fifth, Ronald Reagan, share a trait that made them effective presidents and, in the case of Washington, Lincoln, and FDR, great leaders. All of them possessed compelling personas that commanded attention, respect, and devotion—the modern definition of charisma. The three greats also encapsulated the ancient denotation of that word: they seemed divinely blessed with leadership.
George Washington literally stood out from his peers with his 6’2”height, way above average for his era. And no one cut such a stately figure astride a horse. Soldiers under his command marveled at how he could remain stock still atop his steed, radiating confidence and courage. Although tall, he thought his shoulders too narrow, so he ordered uniforms with extra-wide epaulettes. Washington’s dramatic flair masked his weaker skills as an orator, but his speeches reveal a clear vision for the new nation that served as a guide for his successors. President Obama recently quoted Washington’s Farewell Address in his own final presidential speech, observing that our first president emphasized the blessings of “self-government” and the need preserve the “sacred ties” that bind us to that noble experiment.
Lincoln, too, towered above contemporaries with his 6’4” frame, but he lacked the aristocratic bearing of the first president. Instead, his raw-boned physique and homely features endeared him to juries in the courtroom and constituents on the hustings. When accused of being two-faced, he famously quipped, “If I had another face, do you think I’d wear this one?” His magnetism’s source was homespun humor and soaring rhetoric that has remained unsurpassed by those following him to the White House. Appealing to the “better angels of our nature,” he established another common trait of charismatic presidents. They all eschewed demagogic appeals to base instincts in favor of inspiring and elevating the American people and allies around the world.
Franklin Roosevelt manifested, in the words of Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, “a first-class temperament.” Or as Winston Churchill observed, “Meeting Franklin Roosevelt was like opening your first bottle of champagne.” He exuded charm and optimism, despite his polio affliction, that drew people to him. Who could forget his upturned smiling face, cigarette holder clenched at a jaunty angle? FDR’s twelve-year White House tenure coincided with the growth of mass electronic media (radio and newsreels). He mastered the technology with accessible fireside chats that brought him into every home, bar, and auto with a radio.
Likewise, Jack Kennedy captured the American imagination with another new medium. When Dwight Eisenhower was elected in 1952, only 20 percent of households had TVs; by 1960, 80% owned a set. Debates, speeches, and live broadcasts of press conferences in prime time showcased Kennedy’s knowledge, grace, humor, and eloquence. His assassination and the symbols of martyrdom surrounding his funeral burnished the Camelot legend that endures a half-century later.
Ronald Reagan’s succinct mission to shrink the federal government and win the Cold War, combined with his sunny optimism and natural media presence, appealed to Americans depressed by more than a decade of political assassinations, civil unrest, unpopular wars, and economic uncertainty. His memorable portrayal of Notre Dame All-American football player, George Gipp, in the 1940 Hollywood biopic of legendary coach Knute Rockne, followed Reagan into the political arena. “Win won for the Gipper!” became his rallying cry. The president mixed the heroic athlete image with American cowboy mythology, as he rode horses on his picturesque California ranch—always sporting a white hat. Even Americans who opposed his conservatism marveled at the grace and dignity with which he accepted his Alzheimer’s diagnosis in 1994 and faded into the sunset.
Professor Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.’s 1996 poll of historians rated Washington, Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt as the greatest presidents. They used their charismatic leadership to establish the Republic and then resurrect it from secession, economic collapse, and world war. When asked to assign approval ratings to the most recent nine presidents in 2010, the Gallup poll discovered that Americans scored JFK at the top, with 85 percent, and Reagan second with 74 percent. Not all presidents possess charismatic traits or are blessed with resonant communication talents, but they can evoke Lincoln’s eloquent plea to the “mystic chords of memory” that bind Americans together in their effort to achieve a more perfect Union.
Barbara A. Perry is the Presidential Studies Director at University of Virginia’s Miller Center.