Friday, December 28, 2007

What Do Politicians Do When They Aren’t Talking?

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I’ve been meaning to post this piece that I wrote shortly after witnessing the Democratic candidates in person during Yearly Kos, but other things kept pushing it to the back burner. Since we are now down to the wire, I’m going to pare it down to the three top tier candidates and post it:

One of the most fascinating things about seeing the Presidential Leadership Forum in person was the opportunity to watch the body language and demeanor of the candidates, particularly when they were not answering questions. Since the format of this event involved questions for individual candidates, and the other candidates were not expected to respond, I found it interesting to see what they did with themselves when they knew they were off the hook with regard to answering a particular question.

Normally, while watching a televised debate, one would primarily see the body language of the person on camera, so I decided to focus on the others to see what impressions I would get that might be different from the image projected by the candidates when they were “on the spot.”

Before I do, however, I should point out that I have no formal training in evaluating body language, so my thoughts are simply those of a curious observer, interested in seeing another side of the candidates. I also recognize that body language, like speech and policy positions, can be coached, so there is no guarantee that what I observed was any sort of window to understanding anything profound about the candidates.

Nevertheless, the impressions I got were somewhat different from those normally projected by the individual when he or she was on the spot. Here are the notes I made regarding the three top tier candidates:

Obama – He was the only one who consistently directed his answers toward the person who asked it rather than talk directly to the audience. When others were talking, he looked at them, often with a reflective pose and occasionally furrowed brow. Frequently, he would lean back and cross his legs like he was relaxing in his living room, but always with chin in hand, constantly seeming to process what he was hearing.

Clinton – Always seemed to have a slight smile, oddly even when being criticized by the other candidates or when asked a challenging question from the audience. She sat back while listening, and leaned forward while speaking, but sometimes didn’t seem to be talking to the crowd so much as to an imaginary audience of poll subjects, or so I remember thinking at the time.

Edwards – Showed the greatest contrast between his speaking and non-speaking personas. Although he was one of the most passionate orators during his turn to speak, when others were talking he sat fixed with a somewhat pained expression, in a position much like the Lincoln Memorial, as if waiting for his turn to rise up on cue like the animatronic star of the Country Bear Jamboree.

I don’t know what this all means, but I do recall that I arrived feeling equally supportive of the candidacy of Obama and Edwards, and highly skeptical of Clinton. I left the event with a completely unchanged impression of Clinton, a slightly better impression of Obama, and a slightly worse impression of Edwards.


  1. I should add that I wrote this on the plane coming home, and only after I arrived did I find that another attendee had taken shots that almost perfectly captured what I saw!

  2. Giraffe11:04 AM

    What an experience to see them out of character. Hilary does look like the cat that swallowed the canary much of the time. Edward is in attack mode and Obama is like an NBA first time player. You're not sure what you've got. I trust his judgment by what he says and he's young enough to have a new thought.
    It will be an interesting week.

  3. Lost Wages Joe10:12 AM

    I don't care if he slept, or walked off, or made funny faces (a la Chevy Chase) at his opponents while they talked, Edwards is the only one of the "big 3" Dem candidates that saying the things I want to hear, and he's the only one of the 3 that seems to share my anger. Right now, he's my candidate.