THE WORD itself is magic.

It sort of rolls off the tongue like "abracadabra" or "Allakhazam."

It's "charisma." And it seems to be the word of the moment.

The Greek origins of the word charisma conjure up various meanings, including favor, divine gift, yearning and even grace, beauty and rejoicing.

What is it that makes a person charismatic? We say we know it when we see it - or when we've seen it, since charisma can be fleeting. So much of it is "of the moment."

Charisma is expressed in the way Winston Churchill held two fingers aloft as a "V" for victory during World War II. It was there when Franklin Roosevelt cocked his head and jauntily held his cigarette in a holder between his teeth. We hear charisma in the rich thunder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s voice and we see it in Gandhi's eyes behind those delicate round spectacles.

When Ronald Reagan threw back his shoulders and walked to the podium or paused at just the right moment for a punch line - or grew serious and declared: "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!" - that was charisma.

There's little doubt that John F. Kennedy had charisma. I witnessed the Kennedy magic in person during the 1960 presidential campaign. When I met him, I knew there was something different. He didn't seem full of himself like so many public figures.

In fact, he seemed shy and awkward in the public spotlight.

He'd lower his shoulders a bit and thrust his hands into the pockets of his suit jacket. He'd look away for a moment and appeared lost or detached, almost to the point where you wanted to help him.

And then he'd look your way and start to speak. The eyes, the hair, that smile, those teeth, the voice with its distinctive accent - in no time at all you found yourself cheering for him.

This was a man, to use another Greek word, who seemed to be completely without hubris.

Of course, we now know that JFK was a thoughtful, somewhat conflicted person with a first-rate mind and good political instincts. But he was also a fatalist who was capable of incredibly reckless behavior in his personal life. Part of his charm came from the fact that he really did not seek center stage. His public role was thrust upon him, imposed upon him.

People claimed they never really knew JFK. The same has been said countless times about Reagan and FDR. They've all been called enigmatic.

Elusiveness lies at the core of charisma. Without some mystery, it withers.

Still, charisma remains catnip to the masses.

We want the "stuff" of charismatic people. But, on some level, truly charismatic personalities understand that this is precisely what we must not have.

So they hold back.

And they make it a point not to talk about themselves too much and not to exhibit undue self-consciousness.

For all the chatter about charisma nowadays, I believe that it's even more so what it always was - an extremely rare commodity.

Things move too fast now and tastes change too quickly. Charisma is more penetrating than mere cultism, more enduring than infatuation. It doesn't have time to take hold anymore.

Our endless curiosity and the white-hot glare of the mega-media age singe the lining of charisma's cloak. And our public figures are simply too full of themselves - too showy, too windy, too loud, too long, too obvious.

They've lost the magic.

Josephine Baker, the legendary cabaret star of another era, expressed it best when, near the twilight of her glittery career, she exhorted her adoring fans:

"Darlings, don't come too close, you'll spoil the illusion!" *

Daniel A. Cirucci is a lecturer in corporate communications at Penn State Abington. He blogs at dancirucci.blogspot.com.