The body language of power

From Hillary, to Obama, to McCain, Huckabee and Romney: CyberShrink leaves no turn unstoned.

The presidential candidates this time around are more interesting than they were in 2004. That doesn't take much, though. We have the Chipmunk, the Stepford Wife, the man you could take home to mother, and some also-rans.

What do their body language and the way they choose to carry themselves in public reveal about them?

The main contest
The more you see of Barack Obama, the more you like him. It's the opposite with Hillary Clinton – the more you see of her, the more disquieted you feel.

That doesn't mean I wouldn't like to see a woman elected as president of the US – but does it have to be Hillary? To elect the wrong woman as president could make it an awfully long time before there is another.

Though she's aiming to convey confidence, Clinton comes across as smug, cocky, and imperious. She seems to ooze a sense of entitlement, and seems cold and aloof, as if she has carefully rehearsed the motions of appearing friendly. It all seems planned, and above all, stale. There's something about her robotic movements, always stiff, never appearing spontaneous… she's often even jerky. She makes even the tightly-wound Martha Stewart seem sloppy. And that hair! The heavily-lacquered approach adds to the helmet-hard, unapproachable feeling.

Obama comes across as warm, friendly (but no pushover), sincere, and intelligent. And, above all, fresh.

When Clinton was doing badly in New Hampshire, she appeared momentarily tearful, created a sensation and a major boost in her popularity. Apparently, the revelation that she might be human was greatly encouraging to her supporters. I found the scene off-putting. She seemed to me to be calculating even now, recognising her moment of weakness as an opportunity, and making sure the cameras got it.

When Hillary talks, as she does, of the depth and breadth of her experience, one has to ask – of what? Is the experience of tolerating intolerable conduct in a spouse, really something we should expect of a president? Simply being the wife of a president doesn't equate to being experienced.

She repeatedly tells us she is ready to become Commander-in-Chief of the military – as if having sat for a time on the Armed Services Committee somehow prepares one to command troops. Her sole serious policy work was on the Clinton Health policy initiative, which utterly failed.

What about Iraq? This may be the single biggest blunder in recent American history. She voted for invasion, Barack against it. In response to her sneaky campaign ad about the emergency phone ringing in the White House – from the world's and America's point of view, which of them would one rather have answering that phone?

Obama feels like the future, Clinton like the past. She is a lifelong expert on politics, just when America is growing really tired of that. She jeers at Obama's lack of experience, apparently not recognising that this is precisely what many like about him – the extent to which he is untainted by the back rooms of Washington.

Hillary has complained that Barack has not been challenged on his claims, but I haven't seen her challenged on hers.

Those last-decade pants suits, the plastic grin, the smile that doesn't quite reach the eyes – these all make her appear like the past. She stands on stage, clapping in time to the music, aiming to look cool. She points at people in the audience, mouthing greetings. The pattern is predictable.

Obama, by contrast, comes across as genuinely inspiring and convincing, and shows a disarming and self-deprecating wit (I have never seen evidence of a Clinton sense of humour). He appears energetic, eager, and actually pleased to see people.

Huckabee and McCain
The Republican candidate who is no more, Mike Huckabee, was a bit of a no-hoper from the start. His substantial weight loss made him look like a slightly deflated Muppet. He always reminded me of a slightly shabby second-hand car salesman, selling away enthusiastically, but somehow aware that he wouldn't be getting any commission on this one. Yet Rolling Stone reports that this preacher once wanted to be a rock musician. Go figure.

John McCain has an interesting face, with the very wide cheeks of a chipmunk, more jowls than Hillary, and a rather small and tight mouth. He usually comes across as sincere, trustworthy and kindly, but apparently has a major reputation for a fierce temper, and is seen as testy and irritable.

Change and challenges
Everyone is talking of change (after George Bush and Cheney, who wouldn't want some sort of change?) Predictably, each candidate would have America believe that they themselves are the only one capable of bringing it about, without ever being very specific about exactly what changes they'd manage.

Too often forgotten is the issue of electability. I haven't managed to find anyone who doesn't like Obama. Not only his own party, but Independents and even surprisingly many Republicans like him. Whereas, despite the many who like Clinton a lot, there are also many, in her own party and outside it, who appear really to dislike her – and would either vote against her, or abstain.

Feminist comment
Lest it be thought, as some simplistic commentators say, that it is somehow anti-feminist to criticise Hillary, I was relieved to see the comments of the feminist guru, Germaine Greer, who called her cold, bossy and manipulative, and generally unappealing to feminists. It is not sexist to call a bossy person bossy. And I gather she described the Clinton marriage as "a strategic confederacy, not an emotional partnership". Ouch.

(Professor M. A. Simpson, March 2008)

The Science of Presidential Complexity. Shankar Vedantam. Washington Post, Monday, January 28, 2008; Page A03

Lucian Gideon Conway III, University of Montana at Missoula, in the journal Political Psychology. 229 w

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