Walesa’s Mustache, the Dalai Lama’s Smile, and Sarkozy’s Je Ne Sais Quoi

In praise of charismatic politicians.

The Dalai Lama and Lech Walesa

GDANSK, Poland—The president of the European Commission was there; so was Iranian activist Shirin Ebadi and former South African President F.W. de Klerk, both recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize. A whole gaggle of prime ministers showed up, keen to discuss peace, the financial crisis, and, above all, a new pact on climate change; some Cuban dissidents even sent a letter that was read aloud onstage.

A lot of people, in other words, traveled to cold, rainy Gdansk this weekend, eager to attend a conference marking the 25th anniversary of the day Lech Walesa—Solidarity activist, anti-Communist trade union leader, and former Polish president—won the Nobel Peace Prize. And yet—though presidents, prime ministers, and Nobel laureates were in attendance, though vital negotiations went on in the corridors, three names led all the news stories: the Dalai Lama, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, and Walesa himself.

Nor, for once, was this news coverage slanted. Despite the plethora of distinguished guests, those were indeed the three stars everyone came to see. I happened to be present when Sarkozy made his one public appearance, giving what sounded like a campaign speech, hugely flattering to Poles in general and Walesa in particular. (“Democracy exists thanks to you and to people like you!”) I was thus able to observe that, when the French president left the room, a large crowd of people got up and followed him out the door. As a result, the next speakers—yet another Nobel laureate and a famous economic reformer among them—found themselves talking to a half-empty conference hall, where the previously electric atmosphere had somehow fallen flat.

Part of the explanation for this phenomenon lies in the causes and institutions that the three stars represent. Though Walesa is a rather controversial figure in Poland—his years as president aren’t recalled with much nostalgia, for example, and it’s been a while since he has made a stirring speech—outside Poland, none of that matters. Following the death of Pope John Paul II, he is, simply, the greatest living symbol of the collapse of communism, the embodiment of the idea that ordinary people—electricians, shipyard workers—can bring down dictatorships. In the contemporary world, the Dalai Lama plays a similar role. He, too, symbolizes defiance—of the Chinese occupation and cultural destruction of Tibet—and he, too, embodies the idea that authoritarianism and violence can be fought with faith and pacifism.

People come to hear the Dalai Lama, like Walesa, not merely because of what he will say, but because of what he represents. By the same token, people come to hear Sarkozy not necessarily because of what he will say but because of who he is: the president of France, the leader of what remains one of the most influential nations in Europe, itself the inheritor of a long tradition of revolutionary democracy.

And yet—there are other factors at play here, too. I have met North Korean refugees who are at least as brave as the Dalai Lama, and there were anti-Communist dissidents at least as effective as Walesa, yet TV cameras do not follow them from place to place. Equally, there are other European leaders—Prime Minister Gordon Brown of Britain comes to mind—who represent rich democratic traditions, and yet I don’t think photographers would have been quite as powerfully drawn to them.

The fact is that, aside from what they represent, these three men share something else rather important: an indefinable form of charisma, a gift for publicity, and an intuitive understanding of what will look good in a photograph. Sarkozy wanted his picture taken with the Dalai Lama partly because he wanted to defy the Chinese regime’s occupation of Tibet and partly because the Dalai Lama, with his monk’s robes, has an almost mystical appeal. The Dalai Lama wanted his picture taken with Sarkozy partly because meetings with any foreign leaders help him put pressure on the Chinese government but also because a photograph with the glamorous Sarkozy—because he wears shoes with heels, because he is married to Carla Bruni—is worth more than most.

And both of them wanted to meet Walesa, because a picture with Walesa is worth more than a picture with most other Nobel laureates, too. Why? Because Walesa is an electrician, because he wears a trademark mustache, because he is given to earthy sayings and mixed metaphors. And because when he leaves the room—as when the Dalai Lama leaves the room or when Sarkozy leaves the room—something in the atmosphere, something indefinable, goes flat. “Moral authority,” or any authority, is something people earn, thanks to their achievements and the quality of their ideas—and it is something they can sustain only if they know how to advertise themselves.