Mikhail Gorbachev has it, so do Jesse Jackson, Vaclav Havel, Nelson Mandela, and Violetta Chamorro. John Kennedy personified it, Ronald Reagan scripted it, and Michael Dukakis experienced what life can be like for a politician without it. It’s how success and failure in national politics is so often now spelled: it’s c-h-a-r-i-s-m-a.

Like so many of the words bandied about in popular culture, the provenance of the word has been all but forgotten. Derivative of the Greek charis (“grace”) and charizesthai (“to show favor”), charisma originally meant a grace or a talent specially vouchsafed by God. The years, however, have taken their toll on this meaning, and far from denoting divine inspiration, charisma has come to mean nothing more than vitality or sex appeal. It’s a charm to be cultivated, marketed, and learned through self-help seminars or self-actualizing tapes. In fact, the truly wise don’t even need the tapes and seminars. As Doe Lang told us in The Charisma Book: What It Is and How to Get It, charisma is actually “within us all”—cabdriver, electrician, and Chronicles reader alike. All we need to do is to buy this book.

The person chiefly responsible for associating “charisma” with politics is Max Weber. Weber analyzed three types of political authority, one of which was the “charismatic.” Weber described a charismatic leader as one who feels destined to carry out a mission because of the exceptional talents or powers he supposedly possesses. The charismatic leader requires wholehearted devotion from his followers, and the foundation of his authority’ is emotional rather than rational: it rests on trust, often blind and fanatical, and faith, often unrestrained and uncritical. Bound by neither institutions nor rules, customs nor precedents, the charismatic leader has unlimited power.

In other words, charismatic rule is the antithesis of our “government of laws and not of men.” It is, by definition, anathema to the idea of constitutional democracy, political representation, and a system of checks and balances. Only a complete historical amnesia could therefore account for the extraordinary metamorphosis this word has undergone: no longer representative of the type of political authority that characterized the Old World and distinguished it from the New—the arrogant, dishonest, and pretentious form of charismatic rule known as the divine right of kings—charisma is now the pinnacle of political virtues we look for to praise in leaders both at home and abroad. And even if a political leader has none of the qualities or attributes currently considered “charismatic”—the sexy smile, the endearing grin, the ability to move an audience with a speech of rhythmic and alliterative platitudes—he or she is often adorned with the label nonetheless. For charisma has become the laurel we want and expect our leaders to wear.

The power that the word “charisma” now wields over our political process is astounding. Indeed, as Theodore White would have put it, a presidential candidate can no longer be sold without it. Charisma is the reason most often cited for Gary Hart’s rise and Michael Dukakis’s fall; the former had it, the latter did not. Many political pundits had written off George Bush in 1988 because he lacked the “charisma factor,” that is, until the Democrats performed the impossible by coming up with someone even more nondescript than Bush. And what is the reason most often given for why Governor Mario Cuomo, Senators Bob Kerrey and Bill Bradley, and Lee Iacocca should run for the presidency? You guessed it.

The public has forgotten that charisma has never been an indicator of competence or a guarantee of political probity. In fact, modern history gives us no reason to think that a charismatic leader will be anything other than a charlatan, a sham, a demagogue, or a dictator. No one can deny that Hitler and Mussolini, or Jim Jones and Charles Manson, gained power on the basis of their charismatic appeal. Gary Hart’s “charisma” didn’t prevent him from taking his supporters for granted and sleeping with Donna Rice. Jack Kennedy will forever be remembered for his sex appeal, his womanizing, and for being assassinated, and not for any success as either policymaker or statesman. Ronald Reagan’s charm in front of the cameras didn’t help him to lower the deficit, to abolish the Department of Education, or to reduce the size of the federal government. And Gorbachev’s “impromptu” jaunts through throngs of Washingtonians and West Germans may endear him to the masses and media folk alike, but they do nothing to shorten the lines of Russians who cue up daily for meat, bread, eggs, and potatoes.

Thoreau once said that he would run for cover if ever he saw a man approach his house with the conscious design of doing him good. Considering the current lust for charisma, there’s no reason to think that we’d be smart enough to run.