Herman Scissorhands: Cain’s magical hand gestures

December 4, 2011

When Herman Cain announced the suspension of his campaign Saturday, addressing supporters in Atlanta, his words met with murmurs of disappointment. Then he teased the crowd a little, heightening the drama by keeping his mouth shut and lifting an imperious hand.

Breathless pause.

Was Cain going to bestow a blessing? Shake a fist at fate? How could you possibly look away?

As the onetime Republican candidate proceeded to list his reasons for dropping his presidential bid, his hands danced in the afternoon sun. They popped into the air one at a time or, as Cain stated perhaps the strongest case for quitting — dwindling funds — they rose together toward the sky as if the former pizza boss were delivering a large pepperoni to the heavens.

It was a familiar display. Cain surely has some of the most famous hands in the country. And that was true even before we heard allegations about them sliding unwanted under a woman’s skirt.


Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain bows to the crowd during his announcement Saturday at an event in Atlanta that he was suspending his campaign. (David Goldman/AP)

Cain’s hands told us a lot. They were a big part of his passionate physical energy, his ability to electrify an audience. He spoke in a kind of corporeal PowerPoint, with no need for a slide show because his hands did all the illustrating. That was easy to do, because he’d simplified the complexities of governance down to short lists of boldfaced points.

Did Marcel Marceau coach him? The man is Mr. Gesture. While reciting the four virtues of his tax plan, the three things his parents taught him, the four steps in problem solving, etc., Cain would tick the items off with his fingers, holding them high in the gestural equivalent of belting to the upper balconies.

How he loved a concept he could act out! Speaking to a business group in Tysons Corner a few weeks ago about establishing “a level playing field,” Cain turned himself into a human balance scale, pantomiming the shifting pans with outstretched arms and cupped fingers.

Then there was Herman Scissorhands:

“I am not afraid to put bold ideas” — up went his palms, lifting imaginary ideas heavenward — “specific ideas” — he made fists, then shot out two fingers on each hand, as if he were brandishing pairs of shears — “. . . on the table!”

Of all the Republican candidates, Cain had the most charismatic stage presence, and his gestural cock-a-doodle-doos had a great deal to do with it. The motivational speaker and occasional gospel singer had the entertainer’s urge to whip up energy with his whole body and send it rushing out to the audience. Speaking to the Northern Virginia Technology Council, Cain revved up the crowd before launching into his 9-9-9 tax proposal:

“Here is,” Cain began, sucking in a big breath and inflating his double-breasted suit jacket. He tipped his face toward the ceiling and raised his arms as if he were brandishing the moon. “. . . the Cain Plan!”

Loud applause, on cue. Cain milked it. “Oh, it gets better,” he vowed. “You’ll be shoutin’ by the time I get through.” In fact, he soon jolted the attendees to a standing ovation with this shouted proclamation: “I will never apologize for the greatness of the United States of America!” Slam! went his hand on the lectern, the universal trigger for a raucous response. As the crowd’s adoration washed over him, Cain took a bow, eyes modestly downcast as his smile widened.

But Cain’s magic involved some sleight of hand. His larger-than-life physical bluster was aimed at churning up an emotional response. It didn’t prompt his audience to think so much as to cheer. As much as Cain’s speeches offered a multi-sensory experience for the audience and performer alike, they were also bodily evidence of more style than substance.

Sarah Kaufman received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and has been The Washington Post's dance critic since 1996. But after logging serious sit-time in opera houses, black boxes, folding chairs and dive bars, what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it.
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