What Mitt Romney’s Body Language Is Trying to Tell Us

Lots of people have talked about how Mitt Romney comes off like a robot. Some, like Chris Matthews, home in on Mitt’s odd way with words (“The trees are the right height”), suggesting that Mitt has yet to master an Earth-based language. Others focus on finding the right metaphor: Is Mitt a “wimp” and a “weenie,” as Mike Tomasky writes in Newsweek, or is he instead a “weasel,” as Chris Weigant maintains in Huff Post?

There’s some truth to each of these approaches to the mystery that is Mitt. But I think Dan Aykroyd got closest to the essence of it when he suggested that we follow the body language: Mitt has “a funny walk,” Aykroyd said. “He wears a girdle, I think.”

This seemed almost literally true during a photo op in Israel earlier this week, as the presumptive Republican nominee for president of the United States stood next to the relaxed and voluble Benjamin Netanyahu like an animatronic prop.

OK, ignore if you can the two men’s hilariously prolonged handshake at the beginning of the clip (I assume it went into extra innings for the cameras), and instead check out Mitt’s arms: they’re held stiffly at his sides, hands below the belt; no gestures for him and no self-assertion at all. Maybe the problem was that, even though Romney was trying to talk “tough” about Iran, his body knew that simply parroting whatever Bibi (and Sheldon Adelson) want him to say is anything but tough. So his body tried to shout, “Weak!” Just look at the symbolism of the old chums’ relative body language: Bibi grabs the mic, Bibi grabs Mitt’s hand for the shake; Romney, meanwhile, is all deference and obedient schoolboy, and about as commanding as one.

Is this the sign of a “wimp”? Or of growing up with Mormon modesty? I dunno. But in public, an awkward and passive posture is Romney’s most customary stance. Not only does he have no physical swagger, but he seems to recoil from the very space a swagger might propel him into.

REUTERS/Scott Audette

REUTERS/Rick Wilking

(AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

(AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

His gait, too, is held back. Often his arms and legs don’t swing fully; they seem to halt an inch or two before their full expression, almost apologetically, almost like the walk is walking itself back, much as he frequently does with his “gaffes.”

Here’s Mitt walking that walk, as he avoids the press at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Warsaw this week (as an aide tells reporters asking questions, “Kiss my ass. This is a holy site for the Polish people. Show some respect!”):


Actually, let’s give the guy credit for not walking with the false swagger of, say, George W. Bush. A physically aggressive posture does not a courageous man make. (For that matter, let’s give him credit for daring to let Ann drive the jet ski.) But in Romney’s case, a physically passive posture may reveal instead a false humility.

Romney’s whole face, in fact, often looks oddly passive and humble. Like his limbs, his facial expressions also hold back; instead of jutting forward, his energy seems to go concave. This is especially apparent when he gazes at others. “Mitt Romney loves to look longingly at other politicians,” Karna writes in Buzzfeed, with plenty of photos that can certainly be interpreted that way, like these:

(AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)

REUTERS/Mark Makela

This signature Romney pose—eyes softened, mouth closed, sometimes in a Mona Lisa smile, stomach slightly out, shoulders slightly slumped—has always struck me as a benevolent, kindly look. If he’s looking on as other people speak, it seems he’s doing so in admiration, perhaps like a proud pastor letting his flock speak from the pulpit. That would jibe with what Maureen Dowd refers to as “Romney’s image of himself as wise, caring, smart and capable.”

During the Republican debates, Romney, Sarah Kaufman wrote in the Washington Post, would often “lean an elbow on his lectern and, with the mild, slightly wincing smile that is his default expression, he’ll settle in to listen. (Is that the consultant in him, keeping an open mind? Or is it the missionary, hoping to find common ground and then swoop in for the conversion?) .… Stiff, yes. But not cold…. This man wants to be involved. He has the missionary’s tenacity.” (If so, this gives new meaning to “the missionary position.”)

But here’s the problem: Romney had the same look on his face right before he famously and physically laid into Rick Perry for accusing him of hiring “illegals” at one of the debates. Grabbing Perry’s shoulder and refusing to let Perry interrupt him, Romney was no wimp or weenie. He was aggressive, he was bold—as he’s been in other debates and can be on the campaign trail. Yet, when it was officially Perry’s turn to speak, Mitt returned to the same mild mien that I had taken as benevolence and kindness. (See the episode here.)

Mitt may well have vast reserves of both qualities, but they are not necessarily what his passive posture reveals at all. Elspeth Reeve may be right when she writes that when Mitt seems to be making goo-goo eyes at others, he’s really just expressing “boredom and contempt.”

Maybe he’s really saying: “You can’t say I’m not paying attention to you. Look at me: I’m politely wasting my time, feigning interest and positive feelings toward you. I will smother you with my listening power!”

My pop-psych take is that—with some notable exceptions (like grabbing Perry, or tackling a fellow student at prep school to cut off his hair off)—Mitt finds it far safer to express the passive side of his passive-aggressiveness: arms immobile at his sides (the better to not throttle you with); mouth closed (the better to not blurt insults); eyes dreamy (the better to not shoot daggers). It all goes with how he trained himself, consciously or otherwise, to not be as honest as his dad. (George Romney lost the GOP nomination for president when he said that the military had “brainwashed” him into supporting the Vietnam war—a lesson Mitt has not forgotten.) As I wrote of Mitt a few months ago, “Bland on the outside, roiling on the inside, he’s almost the definition of passive-aggressive: expressing ‘negative feelings, resentment, and aggression in an unassertive passive way.’ Mitt regularly attacks, lies or infuriates people, all the while professing to be blissfully unaware of any negativity.”

Why, he attacked, lied and infuriated people just the other day, when he implied that Palestinian culture is inferior to Israeli culture—and then, as if unaware of any negativity, denied two days later he’d said a thing about culture. Hours later, of course, he reversed himself again and doubled down on the culture explanation in a National Review op-ed.

And none of this even touches on the idea that his lying is beginning to seem not just passive-aggressive but pathological. Rachel Maddow showed Wednesday how Romney probably lied about his tax returns when he was running for governor of Massachusetts. Back then, he refused to show the returns to the Boston press after promising to do so—much as he promised ABC News this week that he’d answer questions about his tax returns, but has since refused.

We may never know the truth about his taxes or his other secrets. But the body knows…


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