What do those gestures mean?

Posted: Tuesday, October 21, 2003

WASHINGTON If people think with their hands, then what on earth are the Democratic presidential candidates thinking?

There's Howard Dean, with two pointy fingers extended straight out one moment, traffic-cop palms out the next and back to the single digits.

And there's North Carolina Sen. John Edwards' karate chops and thumbs-up sign. Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri shakes his fist and Al Sharpton knocks his hand against the podium, then cups his hands toward himself.

Flapping, waving, pounding, pointing these motions can be their own language, or at least punctuate what a candidate has to say. People who study political communications say the Democrats have proved an animated flock but figuring out what their gestures mean is not always easy.

Dean's palms-out gesture, for example, intrigues Kathleen Hall Jamieson, dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. ''It looks as if Dean is about to be assaulted by a refrigerator.''

Jurgen Streeck, who studies communications at the University of Texas, says Sharpton is so good at gesturing he'd please the Roman emperors.

But for the most part, the candidates' gestures have been rigid and highly scripted in their continuing series of debates, he said, drawing on a repertoire of about 10 movements. The next debate is Sunday in Detroit.

Gestures have long been considered bad manners, a sign of evil, a window into character and a way to highlight speech. Thumbs up, sweeping fingers, pointing and shaping movements of the hands that happen in conversation interested the Roman rhetoricians, who studied the role of gesture in oration.

It's still studied. Streeck, who is president of the International Society for Gesture Studies, finds Edwards' movements unmatched to what he's saying.

''Nothing in his speech ever lives up to his gesture,'' Streeck says. ''You rarely find that kind of disconnect.''

He says former Illinois Sen. Carol Moseley Braun is far more natural. ''She has the most sophisticated gestures,'' he says. They are ''intricate, rich in form, not prefabricated and fit exactly what she is trying to convey. It comes at the right moment.''

Jamieson said the candidates should be careful not to use gestures carelessly.

''If they do it naturally, it marginally helps emphasize the message,'' she says. ''If it's done badly, it really stands out.

''The communications literature says gestures can reinforce a message, but it is more likely to be a problem than an asset.''

Gestures reinforced President Kennedy's famous call to national service in his 1961 inaugural speech, as he shifted from a clenched fist to a wagging finger when he implored Americans: ''Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.''

But sometimes gestures get in the way. Jamieson recalled how comedian Dana Carvey made fun of former President Bush's slashing gestures, and that's what people started seeing when they looked at him.

This President Bush curls his palms toward his chest when speaking about himself.

Dean has some of the most distinctive gestures among the nine Democratic candidates. He points a lot.

''When I look at him, it always feels like he is lecturing at me,'' Streeck says. ''He gestures as if he is scolding us for not knowing what he knows.''

Jamieson says Dean's gesturing is compounded by his other body motion. ''He pulls his head up into his shoulder. Some birds, when attacked, pull their heads in.''

She says politicians should be watchful about pointing. When that is captured in a photograph, it looks as if they are reproaching as opposed to leading. ''It's a 'shame on you, you're a bad dog' gesture.''

Props can be trouble. Jamieson says debate coaches advise candidates not to clutch the podium, for example. It looks like ''you're holding on for dear life.''

And when Gephardt clutched a pen in one debate, she says it looked threatening, like he was going to assault someone with it.

Still, Gephardt is comfortable with gesturing, having honed the art of it in nearly three decades in Congress. ''The jabbing gesture he uses for emphasis is consistent with his tone,'' she says.

Streeck agrees. ''His gestures are more diverse, and they originate in the shoulder, so his range of gestures is broader.''

In the debates and speeches so far, each candidate has had something to say with gestures:

Wesley Clark slightly cups his palms in front of him, as if holding a soccer ball, sometimes hunching his shoulders as if the ball is heavy.

Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry favors palms in front of him, parallel. Much in his movements is a mirror image, both hands doing the same thing.

Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman shakes both fists.

Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich hooks the index finger of one hand on the pinky of the other.

Sharpton's gestures are practically a sign language at times, illustrating a string of concepts.

Whatever their gesturing brings to the stage now, their acts will get better in time, Jamieson predicts.

''Their capacity to deliver a tight message is improving dramatically debate to debate,'' she says.

A look at historic gestures:

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy wagged his index finger as he said in his inaugural address: ''Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.''

Richard Nixon raised his hands in a double peace sign as he boarded a helicopter to leave Washington after resigning the presidency on Aug. 9, 1974.

Facing down youthful demonstrators in Binghamton, N.Y., in 1976, then-Vice President Nelson A. Rockefeller gave them the gesture they were giving him, and created a controversy about his demeanor rather than theirs.

''I don't think it's dignified to give the finger to the vice president of the United States,'' he said after the campaign stop with then-Sen. Bob Dole, R-Kan. ''I was just responding in kind. That's what America is all about.''

At a White House news conference Jan. 26, 1998, President Bill Clinton, clenched his fist and pointed a finger, saying, ''I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky.''

The Associated Press

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