Interview with Joanne Herring

Joanne Herring

Joanne Herring is an American political activist, philanthropist, diplomat, and former talk show host. She figured into one of the most notorious clandestine actions of the Cold War, which took her into the mountains of Afghanistan to fight the Soviet Union occupation.  Her astonishing story was featured on the big screen with Charlie Wilson’s War [Julia Roberts portrayed Joanne, Tom Hanks played US Congressman Charlie Wilson].

Q: What does charisma mean to you?

JH: Someone that attracts you, someone you would like to be with and know better, and someone that has something to say—not gossip, not innuendo, not self-aggrandizement.  If it’s world affairs, if it’s something to do in the city, if it’s the ballet, make sure you know something about what you are saying. If there was anything in my life that helped me was that I knew my subject. A lot of times when I wanted to see somebody—if you are attractive (which everyone can make an effort) you can get in the office and you can get out of the office very quickly and never get back, but if you have something pertinent concerning them, or helps them, or perhaps helps whatever your cause is, you can tie those two together and a ten minute appointment can turn into a two hour appointment.

More than anything in life that is what I did. That is what I did with the King of Morocco, King Hassan II, and that is how I became his advisor.  I had a fifteen-minute appointment (out of courtesy to a friend) but he kept me for two hours.  He had his Chief of protocol waiting at the door asking me if I could work with him in Morocco.  But I was working in Pakistan, so I told the Chief of protocol that I couldn’t because I was also with Pakistan. He said, No one has ever said no to his majesty the King!   So I asked if it were alright if I worked with both countries and the King accepted.  And because I could do that it gave me entry into the Middle Eastern countries.

Of course the Moroccans are Arabs and Muslims and the Pakistanis and Afghans didn’t consider themselves Arabs.  I was sort of a conduit to help those countries to better work together.  I was an American and a woman in countries where women didn’t even sit down for dinner.

Q: Is charisma something you are born with or can you cultivate it?

JH: If we have any sense we know what succeeds, if it’s an outfit or whatever you’re doing.  If you go out and you are wearing a dress and you don’t get any compliments on the dress that dress goes back into the closet. Then you start to think, do I have a certain look? You determine how many dresses get the most compliments and you soon find that you do have a look. I’m a buttons and bows girl because that is what people like me in. I love tailored and sporty clothes but I don’t sell that well… and I have had to sell myself my whole life!

Q: How do you start a conversation with someone you want to meet?

JH: About them!  Well I was out with this man and he said, “You are the most interesting conversationalist. I just had the best time.”   Then he looked at me and said, “But you didn’t say a word!”   All I said was who, what, why, where, when. It really makes life easy because you can let them carry the ball.

Julia Roberts couldn’t capture this woman’s extreme charisma…

Q: What are your top three charisma enhancing tips?


  1. Be kind
  2. Be fun
  3. Be above the small things. Forget them!

You (Maria) have learned something that all of us must learn.  Like L.F. McCollum (Mr. Mc), who built the Continental Oil Company into the integrated worldwide energy giant known as Conoco, said, “I work like hell on what I can change, and the rest I forget about.   Why do we obsess over things that we cannot in anyway change?

Q: What are the inhibitors of charisma?

JH: With shy people they often come across as arrogant or snooty and they are not. I have people that I thought didn’t like me say, “You know I have always admired you so much!”   When I pick myself off the floor in surprise, I have found it’s basically been people that have just been shy.  If you continue to pursue being nice, sincere, and interested in them you find some of your most important people in your life.

Q: When you hear the word charismatic what famous people (besides yourself) comes to mind?

JH: Why certainly no one! How can you ask? [laughing]

If you just meet them it’s people who give and make an effort. [ActorGeorge Clooney gave a lot. I wanted to talk to him about Afghanistan and he talked with me and sent me to the people he works with about the idea of the villages with people helping people from the bottom up.  He could have been as elusive as he chose, but he was nice with everyone. I think [former First LadyBarbara Bush has charisma and she has a lovely heart. She wrote me a long handwritten letter and I was touched by that.

Q: Tell us something humorous about yourself that people don’t know?

JH: Our great lawyer Dick DeGuerin says, I loved what Julia Roberts did with you but what she missed is the humor. Joanne you are fun!

I am sort of I Love Lucy.  All my life I have stumbled through everything and I have made a mess of half of it… and half of it worked out.  I’ve sort of learned to pick myself up and laugh.

When I started in television I was so bad on the air that I remember Ron Stone, [news anchor at KPRC-TV in Houston] who was an icon here, sat frozen.  He couldn’t believe they would pay anybody to be that bad. Everything I did that was a mistake I would try something else and if that didn’t work I tried something else.  I was willing to work longer and harder than anybody so I got where I was good and we got to be the sixth highest rated show in the United States.  Television opened the world for me.

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