A very significant part of human communication is non-verbal. Anyone who attends only to words, and ignores the non-verbals is apt to be blind-sided.
The non-verbal aspects of President George W. Bush’s final State of the Union address were remarkable. He offered numerous winks and nods, with knowing smiles, to the audience at various times and in various directions, presumably but not necessarily directed to particular individuals in the audience. It was not possible from television viewing to tell who may have been the intended individual recipients, or even whether the winks and nods were directed toward anyone in particular.
It probably matters little whether the President’s gestures were aimed at individuals or simply to everyone in general. The substance of his non-verbal gestures was in either case deeply troubling. Here was a president discussing lives sacrificed in war, the continuing sacrifice he was asking for years to come, the economic downturn and the critical need for action, and other matters that are deeply troubling to citizens of this country. But the President through all this was occasionally winking, nodding and smiling as if he were an adolescent schoolboy who just played a prank on the teacher.
Perhaps the President’s self definition as prankster was in fact the substantive, though subliminal, message in the State of the Union address. He has indeed played a six-year prank on the nation, taking the country into a war with no end by passing off phony data as fact, and he likely believes he will never be called before the bar of justice to account for his prank.
Or perhaps the prank that inspired him to feel so full of himself was that his highly touted tax reductions had been a windfall to the wealthy like himself and a meager sop to the average wage earner.
On the other hand, perhaps his prank was forcing Nancy Pelosi (front and center on television) and her fellow Democrats to stand and applaud for claims that surely they surely knew were false, for fear of appearing unpatriotic
Or perhaps it was all of these little pranks and more that inspired George W Bush to grin, wink and nod during the most solemn political liturgy of the year. Maybe it was all of the above and more, possibly including pranks we are yet to hear about.
RAYMOND J. LAWRENCE is an Episcopal cleric for 46 years, recently retired Director of Pastoral Care, New York Presbyterian Hospital, and author of numerous opinion pieces in newspapers in the U.S., and author of the recently published, Sexual Liberation: The Scandal of Christendom (Praeger).