September 6, 2004

Political Psychology: Hail to the Stiff


On the subject of Jon Stewart, he really did a great job with John Kerry a week and a half ago. People fault Kerry for being stiff, and he is. That said, he’s still far healthier psychologically than Bush.

When you take a closer look at both candidates, Bush is every bit as rigid as Kerry, but in a more pathological way. As you can see in this interview, when Kerry relaxes, he can be quite personable, even playful. Bush, on the other hand, could never joke around like this on television. He’s much too anxious, too controlled.

If my comparison generates disagreement, it’s because people look at Bush and perceive confidence in behaviors that actually compensate for his lack of confidence. Contrary to what Bush insists, that “swagger” is not just walking. Instead, its an example of the way Bush is constantly having to puff himself up and rush about. The reason the President’s acceptance speech found reason to call out his walk and his edgy demeanor is because of how affected and potentially revealing these behaviors are. In fact, they are symptomatic of someone who is that awkward, touchy and self-conscious.

The other reason people would challenge Bush as “rigid” is because Bush is not inherently tight. Among family and friends, for example, he is known to be remarkably glib and quick witted. He also wasn’t particularly bumbling or inarticulate as a governor or as a business man. Bush, however, is psychologically lightweight. That means he has trouble identifying with the degree of substance or respect others offer to him. It means that, to the extent he is bright or knowledgeable, he has trouble owning those capacities — especially in situations where he is required to take himself more seriously. So, Bush is not a stiff guy, or a stupid guy or a necessarily inarticulate guy — until he is. Until he comes in touch with his lack of weightiness or gravity. Such as, when he has to think and act like the leader of the free world.

By now, most everyone has noticed how, in the middle of what he’s doing, Bush’s eyes will suddenly dart to one side. Or, for no reason, he’ll become mystified and start to stumble. Or, he’ll stop in mid-sentence and suddenly cock his head upward slightly, as if straining to hear some inner voice. Because I don’t know Bush personally, I can’t say specifically how his perceived lack of substance plays out in his head (Chronic nerves? Everpresent feelings that he’s being judged or second guessed? More rehearsing than processing of ideas?). Nonetheless, the outward manifestation can be plainly seen in these gestures and speech acts in those (self-)limited instances when he has to stand alone and think on his feet.

As someone so vulnerable to this exposure, it is no wonder Bush makes himself so unavailable — and is so continuously on the move.

The Jon Stewart – John Kerry Interview in Quicktime Low Bandwidth 13 MB

(source: lisa rein)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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