Jan Weatherhead writes from Washington: George Bush senior’s ‘s old chief of staff, John Sununu, stopped by the studio this week. I like him. He had a good boss in those days at the White House. A good foreign policy man was that Bush senior. Pity he didn’t manage to pass it on to junior. Sununu knew the foreign policy brief.
Nowadays, Sununu has an even surer way of who should get the Oval Office on November 6. He said you can get the measure of either man by the way they walk – especially the spring step in and out of the black helicopter, Marine One. Bullshit? Most things are but maybe this one shines, just a little.
I seem to remember the late British actor Sir Alec Guinness telling me that when he was working on the character for his role of George Smiley in John Le Carré’s Tinker Tailor he couldn’t get it until one day he noticed the way a guy in front of him in a London street was walking. He knew instantly what the man was like. He knew also that was how Smiley would walk.
But a President isn’t straight out of central casting. Or is he? Obama? Surely not. Surely, says Sununu.
Sununu reckons that you get one look at the President’s step-up walk and you know he’s an actor. An action walk? Yes. It’s that short burst when the President is running up the steps into Marine One and when he’s coming out, all set to snap off a commander-in-chief salute to the stiff-to-attention marine at the bottom of the steps. It’s action man. Not MacArthur hitting the ramp at Okinawa but just maybe something out of Top Gun. (Critics might say Police Academy 2).
The podium leap has the same energy. He’s in the wings, the conference host cries the President of the United States, the band beats up with Hail to the Chief and on bounds our hero. Sununu sees the ball of the feet bounce and the arms moving like a champ in warm up. Says Bush’s man ‘he elevates his arms and does this pumping, trying to look like a well-trained and trim dynamic individual. It’s something he does all the time … This President understands that he got elected on the basis of style and not substance and I think he’s trying to preserve style.’
Wait a minute John, could it be that Obama is just built that way? Look at him. Tall, loose limbed and long black-trousered legs that fold over rather than cross over just as a law professor’s should – well, in Illinois anyway. And if that’s Obama, style over substance, what does that tell us about the contender? Mitt Romney doesn’t actually mince, but it’s not what his personal image trainer had in mind when they started out.
Okay, Romney is a track man and has one, maybe two, damaged insteps or somewhere around there. Maybe. But I think it’s character. Short, sharp, steps. A cynic (or was he just a rumour monger?) said he thinks Romney simply wears a corset. Maybe a back injury. Maybe something to give his tailor a break. The walkologists in political analysis say it’s all about getting what you see.Presidents get noticed when they walk because mostly no one stands real close so the cameras and human eyes as well as long toms and wide angles catch the gait – the most vulnerable point in anyone’s visible character. It’s always been that way.
Reagan nodded his head when he walked and his feet fell in line because his sports commentator gait had never left him. Short steps but balanced. George W. Bush walked from his ass. It was a tight walk on small well shod feet. Gerald Ford never got the gum-chew to coordinate with the walking except in golfing spikes so that his footfall never seemed to have much purpose. Yet he was a good President while he was there. Spiro Agnew shifted sideways – and look what he was doing. Richard M. Nixon walked as if about to crouch. That was about right as it turned out.
I knew a real expert in these matters who said he’d spooled through hundreds of hours of red carpet walk footage to see if there was a walk he trusted.
The best politician, or so he said, was Stuart Symington who supported by Harry Truman ran for the Democrat nomination but thanks to single hanging bare-bulb backroom fixing, lost out to John F. Kennedy. According to my man, Symington had the confident walk of a man who lives in his own skin – speaking of which he had trouble talking to southern audiences.
Anyway, Kennedy liked the cut of his jib and firmness of his gait. He was going to offer Symington the Vice President’s berth. He was persuaded to give it to Lyndon B. Johnson. Now Johnson walked like a big rancher who would never eat quiche. Interesting to think that Symington had the most reassuring walk, and but for chance, could in 1963 have succeeded the assassinated Kennedy.
So back to 2012 and walking the talk as it inevitably is. Who should get the vote in November? As Romney well knows, 47 per cent of the American population like the way Obama walks. And the rest of the numbers? As long as Obama doesn’t trip up coming out of three TV debates, he should walk back into the Oval Office. But don’t tell Sununu that.