McCain Has the Allure of a War Hero

His oratory skills may be lacking, but in smaller settings he shines

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Anyone who has watched Sen. John McCain labor through teleprompter-aided victory speeches this presidential primary season would not confuse his appeal with big-crowd charisma.

Podiums are not his natural habitat, and his prepared speeches—even if written by his close aide and gifted wordsmith Mark Salter—can turn into halting set pieces peppered with McCain's most consistent rhetorical flourish: a repetitive use of "my friends."

"He is definitely not a great orator," says Andy Zelleke, codirector of Harvard University's Center for Public Leadership. In other words, don't expect McCain to out-Obama Sen. Barack Obama—or even Sen. Hillary Clinton—when it comes to speaking.

But charisma? On that score, he can compete, say Zelleke and others; it's just that McCain's allure—his humor, bluntness, and life story—manifests itself not in convention halls or arenas but in typically smaller, unscripted settings, such as on the campaign bus with reporters, fielding questions in town hall meetings, or during debates. He is personally compelling for reasons far removed from the freshness and almost evangelical skill that drive Obama's appeal, says Zelleke. "It's not electrifying, but his heroic biography is at the core of his magnetism. He is someone who has earned the right to be given a fair hearing."

In 1996, when Republican Bob Dole took on incumbent President Bill Clinton, the most recent national leader endowed with elusive star quality, New York Times columnist Russell Baker wrote "The Charisma Chasm." He lamented, tongue in cheek, that charisma-challenged Dole had been taking charm lessons and predicted he would flop. "The talent for theatrical fakery is simply not in him," Baker wrote of Dole. "Recognizing this, he apparently intends to win us over by being just plain Bob Dole, the man who's worked at government so long that he knows how to get things done."

Experience. Dole, of course, lost. But McCain's people are banking on voters being won over by just plain McCain, his Senate experience, and the power of his personal story. "Charisma is a tricky word," says Robert Timberg, who wrote The Nightingale's Song, a much-admired book that profiled McCain and four other Annapolis grads, including Sen. Jim Webb. "With McCain, it's more a kind of dynamism, a personal magnetism."

And, says Baker, the charisma skeptic, he's likable. "What's strange is that even reporters like him," he says. Why? It could be because McCain seems one of the gang, "an old Navy guy who after the shower is a towel snapper," says Baker, an old Navy guy himself. Timberg is convinced that if the general election comes down to Obama vs. McCain, the charisma chasm would not be substantial. Back in his 1996 column, Baker said that Dole's problem, in part, was that he was "running in a land that's not very interested in government but definitely likes its television." At least half of that observation still holds true, and how charisma—or its many permutations—plays out this fall on the small screen and on the hustings is anybody's guess.