The evolution of society has been away from hierarchy, but the human race is still wired for it. We seek to tame, or at least to propitiate, the powers we can’t control by submitting to them, and the figures who have seized or been invested with supreme authority have learned, in the long, erratic "progress" of civilization, to make ritual gestures of obeisance to those they rule -- the laying on of hands, the washing of feet, the sharing of bread -- at the same time that they flaunt the emblems of their hieratic splendor: crowns, scepters, and gorgeous robes. "She took her sons to McDonald’s; they wore baseball caps; she embraced AIDS victims," people said of Princess Diana. "She could speak to immigrants in their own language; she invited black people to the White House; she never spoiled her children," people said of Jackie Kennedy. And when the charismatic figure is sincere, or seems to be, in her display of respect for those beneath her in the hierarchy, which is rare enough, she evokes a gratitude from the objects of her benevolence out of all proportion to her actual good deeds. Condescension is experienced as communion, and that is the essence -- the magic trick -- of charisma. For it humbles and exalts at the same time.

-- Judith Thurman