The Washington Post

Mitt Romney’s body language speaks of physical modesty, discipline

Who knew Mitt “the Mitt” Romney had such a devastating left jab? Who knew the man characterized by wooden understatement even had a left hand? We saw it in slow-motion splendor in that memorable October debate-turned-dust-up with Rick Perry, the one that left the Texas governor rattled by the louder, bigger and more persistent man’s touch.

Let’s revisit the ring, er, the scene: Romney, trying to quiet his opponent and rebut the claim that he had hired illegal immigrants, slid over to Perry and, keeping up a breathless tattoo of “I’m speaking. I’m speaking. I’m speaking,” clapped his hand on Perry’s shoulder. Dramatic, as debate behavior goes? Oh, yes. But Romney’s stinging one-two combination — jab left, pummel with the voice — was not so much aggressive as stunningly elegant. He lost neither his smile nor his cool. In terms of grace and smoothness, Cary Grant could hardly have done better.

If, as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, personality is an unbroken series of successful gestures, then there is something pleasantly relentless about Romney. If it’s his turn to speak, he may grab your arm (gently) and demand the floor (politely) and he won’t let up until he has it. He is desperate to engage, to be part of the exchange.

Watch him in debates: Alone among the other candidates, Romney doesn’t just turn his head but moves his whole body toward whoever is speaking. Then he’ll 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?)

For Romney, the debates are not a solo test. He’s in a duet. Who’s his partner? The guy next to him, the moderator — doesn’t matter. He wants to mesh. He has to be in a conversation, and he has to win it. Chalk it up to his Mormon Mission Impossible, going door to door in France in the Herculean task of trying to convert wine lovers to a boozeless faith. It was a pas de deux with rejection. Romney kept at it for 21 / 2 years.

Throughout this campaign and the last one, the former Massachusetts governor has been faulted as being boring and dry. Certainly, he’s the poster child for buttoned-up.

There’s no athlete’s bounce to his walk, nothing flamboyant in his manner. He recently started waving his hands around more when he talks — maybe an aide counseled him to show emotion — but those flourishes don’t suit him. Big moves aren’t in Romney’s repertoire. He’s not inclined to draw attention to himself, constrained as he is by a persistent physical modesty. He doesn’t swagger. If his walk could talk, it would say: Look, so I’m a little stiff, but I’m disciplined. I’m disciplined. I’m disciplined.

Stiff, yes. But not cold. With that vigorous, rapid-fire voice, with the way he seeks a one-on-one connection, Romney reaches out — at times literally. His physical expression is small-scale, and campaign watchers have to adjust for that. But he is no robot. This man wants to be involved. He has the missionary’s tenacity. That can even include, as Perry found out, the laying on of hands.

The Freddie Gray case

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Campaign 2016 Email Updates

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Get Zika news by email

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!
Show Comments
The South Carolina GOP primary and the Nevada Democratic caucuses are next on Feb. 20. Get caught up on the race.
Past South Carolina GOP primary winners
South Carolina polling averages
Donald Trump leads in the first state in the South to vote, where he faces rivals Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio.
South Carolina polling averages
The S.C. Democratic primary is Feb. 27. Clinton has a significant lead in the state, whose primary falls one week after the party's Nevada caucuses.
62% 33%
We'll have half a million voters in South Carolina. I can shake a lot of hands, but I can't shake that many.
Sen. Marco Rubio, speaking to a group of reporters about his strategy to regain support after a poor performance in the last debate
Fact Checker
Sanders’s claim that Clinton objected to meeting with ‘our enemies’
Sanders said that Clinton was critical of Obama in 2008 for suggesting meeting with Iran. In fact, Clinton and Obama differed over whether to set preconditions, not about meeting with enemies. Once in office, Obama followed the course suggested by Clinton, abandoning an earlier position as unrealistic.
Pinocchio Pinocchio Pinocchio
The complicated upcoming voting schedule
Feb. 20

Democrats caucus in Nevada; Republicans hold a primary in South Carolina.

Feb. 23

Republicans caucus in Nevada.

Feb. 27

Democrats hold a primary in South Carolina.

Upcoming debates
Feb 13: GOP debate

on CBS News, in South Carolina

Feb. 25: GOP debate

on CNN, in Houston, Texas

March 3: GOP debate

on Fox News, in Detroit, Mich.

Campaign 2016
Where the race stands
Most Read


Success! Check your inbox for details.

See all newsletters

Close video player
Now Playing

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.