Bush & Pelosi-State of the Union Body Language

A Body Language Analysis of the State of the Union Address
By Patti Wood MA, CSP

Once again I found President Bush’s body language and other nonverbal communication during the State of the Union Address on January 23, 2007 fascinating. Though, the most fascinating thing to watch during this address was the body language of new House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Here is a tremendously powerful historical event in American History, a woman Speaker presiding at a State of the Union Address. Here is a woman to represent all women in America, sitting behind the President watching him and responding to him as a woman who is third in line to the presidency. Many women waited all their lives for this event. We watched closely because we believed the camera would show through her how we feel and what we want. It was not a pretty site. I am not sure it did show all women’s feelings, and personally as a woman, a speech coach and a body language expert, it was not what I expected to see. But it certainly showed how Speaker of the House Pelosi felt!

Let me give you a nonverbal read of the entire event starting with the House Speaker Pelosi’s call to order.

I was watching C-Span before the official televised speech began. I saw the House Speaker Pelosi call the house to order with several gentle hits of the gavel and then when no one seemed to respond she tittered with lighthearted nervous laughter. I was expecting Pelosi to show more gravitas. And I was expecting an immediate respectful response from the democrats and perhaps a large and hearty round of applause. It seemed odd that while the public perceives her as wielding enormous and perhaps threatening power the Democrats and women are excited about her holding the office and those in the chamber in that historical moment did not show respect or obvious enthusiasm for her. Perhaps, they where oblivious to the continual C-Span coverage and they where just waiting for the obvious network coverage.

Many predicted that Bush would appear nervous and stained as he entered the chamber, knowing his low public option polls and the Democratic control of the house. However, the entrance of the President into the chambers was similar to any other address. Bush’s head was up. He directed smiles, handshakes and side comments to many people as he entered. Though, I did not see his normally rather playful winks and boyish grins to particular people. He certainly did not have the grim look of a warrior going into battle that many expected. He looked calm. Even his choice of a light blue tie rather than power red was interesting in its soft and calm effect. In color physiology blue is the color of the sky and the ocean; it is one of the most popular colors. It causes the opposite reaction as red producing a peaceful, tranquil, calming effect.

Normally, the President enters the chamber and as he reaches the podium area he playfully greets the Vice President and the Speaker and visits a moment with them. In this address, he entered and turned to go in front of Cheney and Pelosi and just as he passed Cheney he made a determined turn of his feet, torso and headed away from Pelosi showing disrespect and with a stiffening of his body and reflective pull back, a little fear of the impending speech.

Mr. President subtly showed his power and lack of respect for Polsi’s power in a nonverbal manner when he handed out the envelopes containing the copies of his address. He didn’t linger as he gave the envelope to Pelosi, in fact he immediately turned away. She, in turn, showed she expected a warmer more lengthy greeting by staying faced towards him waiting for the opportunity to give a warm welcome. She shielded herself from his rebuff with the large yellow envelope, held slightly away and over her heart. What was particularly bizarre was what she did with her mouth when she didn’t get the greeting she expected. She took her tongue and pushed out her lower lip in a baboonish anger response. He was I feel, inappropriately disrespectful. However, this is a very strong cue and unusual for a person in her position, unusual for a women and unusual considering the significance of this historical moment.

In the first round of applause for the President, Palosi is already looking away from him, showing her disrespect. Then you see a very telling interaction. Normally the President shows that the Speaker of the House is in charge by waiting for the Speaker to introduce him or perhaps turning and giving a smile and head nod indicating that he is ready to go. Instead Bush turns to Pelosi and says in a commanding and slightly angry voice, “Ready to go?” (He may have thought his mike was not on yet.) The words in his request seemed innocent but his true feelings were reflected in his nonverbal communication. He wanted her to know he was in charge and when she smiles and tries to welcome him, (as he should have allowed her) she says, with a slowly, sweetly and differently delivered personal greeting to him, “Welcome Mr. President,” he ignores it. When she repeats it he emphasizes his message of control by giving a forcefully delivered order, “Let’s Go!”

When the President officially began his address and first makes reference to Pelosi she smiles buoyantly bows her head up and down in a “head curtsy” during the applause. This is her moment and she indicates with her non-verbals that this is the honor she expected.

At 9:15 there is what can only be described as an awesome screen grab moment. As Bush says in what appears on the surface to be a smoothly and beautifully crafted, “Madam Speaker.” The instant he finishes the word, “speaker” if you freeze frame you will see him give set of telling micro facial cues. He closes his eyes all the way, his forehead is wrinkled and furrowed, his head is pulled back, his neck is tense with the strained veins sticking out and he places his tongue inside his mouth and pushes HIS lower lip out with the tongue in defiance. This cluster of cues sends the real message. It says, “That was so hard to do because I am so mad.” “I can’t believe that I had to do that!” “That’s not how I really feel at all.”

Though through most of the rest of the speech Bush’s voice is confident, we have a rare vocal revealing of Bushes fear at the beginning of his address as he delivers the sentence.” I congratulate the democrat majority.” This is one of the most important sentences he says, considering Bush’s lack of popularity and the power of Democrats in the Chamber. His voice is so in strength on the delivery of the word, “congratulate” goes down significantly in power and strength on the word, “democrat” and is extremely soft and pulled back on the word, “majority.”

At this point Pelosi goes into rapid blinking. In my book, “Success Signals,” the reader learns that normal resting blink rate is 10 to 20 blinks per minute. It goes up to 21 to 25 when you begin speaking and as blink rate climbs to 50 it shows nervousness. Pelosi's blink rate was approximately 70 blinks per minute. Now, I always look for other reasons for someone’s nonverbal behavior and I can tell you that she was wearing false eyelashes that could easily have caused the rapid blinking, but because she was only blinking during certain portions of the address I don’t think that was the reason for the rapid blinking. If the cause was merely the false lashes the blinking would have been continuous. Her eye blinking seemed particularly obvious when compared to the stone faced expression of Vice President Cheney seated right next to her.

Considering democrats may not think the war is about a need to defend the US it was interesting that the chamber stood when Bush began speaking about the war and said the rather well crafted sentence, “troops…sent forth to defend us.” Pelosi showed her disagreement with the statement by making an overly obvious swallowing motion. When someone’s thoughts don’t go down well, the listener in this case, Pelosi may struggle to “swallow” the Speaker’s words.

At 9:16 Bush made another well crafted comment about something to the effect of “…Our citizens don’t much care which side of the aisle we sit on as long as we are willing to cross that aisle when there is work to be done.” (Referring to the Democratic and Republican’s sides.) To which Pelosi immediately slides out her tongue slowly over a curled lower lip in a “this tastes bad” nonverbal expression. Interestingly Bush knew it was a killer crafted comment. He waited a full ten seconds for response before he continued with his speech.

At 9:18 when Bush says confidently, “We must balance the federal budget” the entire chamber stands but Pelosi gives a snarling look of anger followed by a pursed lip sour taste in her mouth facial expression and then looks away. She then begins what will be almost continuous odd mouth movements for the remainder of the address. Next, looking like she is swallowing a bitter pill then clearing her mouth of the bitter taste then moistens her lips showing that her mouth is dry from nervousness. These facial expressions do not look respectful, dignified nor dare I say it, lady like. And even more odd considering that there are so many and after awhile or no longer in response to particular disagreeable statements made by Bush and that they continue during Bushes introduction of the Hero’s. This shows her lack of control of her extreme dislike of the President.

I had expected because of her high office, the respectful nature of the event, and again I must say it, her gender, that during the speech she would be stone faced or have the normal masked smile that many women have when hiding their true feeling. How surprising that she looked so awkward and uncomfortable with the President, surprising that his words stuck in her mouth and were difficult to digest. In fact it often appeared that she was searching with her tongue to dislodge a kernel of corn lodged between her teeth.

As Bush announced his still strong stance on the unpopular “No Child Left Behind” act
Pelosi had drawn together eyebrows and pressed her lips to show rage then stuck her tongue out in passive aggressive disagreement with the stance.

Though it sometimes appeared that she was not listening closely as she often blinked, looked away or made odd mouth movements, I believe this was merely a show of disrespect and disagreement. She did show she was ready to hear something she did agree with when she smiled broadly, jumped up out of her seat and began applauding enthusiastically when Bush stated he was for affordable health care.
Overall Pelosi gave applause as we would expect, only to generic statements, as well as extending private school vouchers and non-specific proposals.

Many people in the chamber stood when he said the somewhat poetic line, “On this day, at this hour, it is still within our power to shape the outcome of this battle, let us find our resolve and turn events toward victory.” Pelosi did not stand, nor did 2008 Presidential candidates Senator Hillary Clinton and Senator Barrack Obama.

Pelosi had another particularly pointed look of distaste on her face as she pursed her lips and put her tongue out her mouth with revulsion and Bush said, "We must reduce gas consumption by 20% in the next years.” Did she perhaps think that it was a little too late of a statement?

At 9:41 Bush followed this with statements about the war saying, “…help men in the middle east build a fee society.” Then the camera went to Condelisa Rice who was withdrawn, had close together eyes, a tight mouth and tense facial muscles and had a look of anger on her face like a pit bull. Then she showed she knew she shouldn’t show her anger but couldn’t control it. Her face then twisted to the much more angry side on the left and she tried to suppress it on the right side of the face. The left side of the face is controlled by the emotion producing right hemisphere and shows are truest emotions.

I must say Bush gave his most smooth and confident vocal delivery of the State of the Union speech. And the speech itself was eloquently written. He continued however to show his usual odd habit of tongue thrusting at the end of statements that he either didn’t truly believe or that may illicit attacks from others. He also did his usual bend of the podium lean on his outstretched arm then grin pose. Which translates to, “You think you’ve got me but you don’t.”

Something that did reveal his anger and need to show power was his unusual finger pointing. In fact, he did a lot of aggressive finger pointing during his statements about the war. With the symbolic gun of the pointing finger he indicates that he is going to fight for his way shooting anyone who disagrees and not back down. He emphatically ended each pointing finger session by tapping the finger on the podium as if he was symbolically beating those who fought him and portrayed that they would be shot and their bodies would go down on the ground. He ended his speech with his old tongue thrust as he said, “God bless America” but gave a beautiful and graceful outward sweep of his hands as if he himself was bestowing God’s blessing.

As Bush was near the end of the speech at 9:53 and said something to the effect, “It would not be like us to leave our friends abandoned...” and, “We must save the American people from this...” Republicans stood Democrats stayed seated and our new Speaker of the House sat trying to dislodge that piece of corn in her teeth.