"Only 10 more minutes of this crap."—President George H. W. Bush on what he was thinking as he checked his wristwatch on camera in the midst of a 1992 presidential debate with Bill Clinton and Ross Perot.
It was the telltale sign of a man made uneasy—or, at least, bored—by an audience member's question about how a deep recession had personally affected him. The then president's display of impatience seemed to speak volumes more than his awkward response.
"Of course, you feel it when you're president of the United States; that's why I'm trying to do something about it," Bush said after he'd checked the watch and straightened his suit jacket, "by stimulating the export, vesting more, better education system."
Yet as he stood face to face with voters in the nation's first town-hall-style presidential debate, Bush showed himself to be out of touch with ordinary Americans. And simple gestures "became freighted with deeper meaning," says Ellen Fitzpatrick, professor of history at the University of New Hampshire.
Symbolism. Voters were overwhelmed by issues for which there were no easy answers and confused by the rhetorical subterfuge of a political process in which no candidate dared risk alienating voters by taking a stand, says Fitzpatrick. And "into the void steps this focus on symbolism and gesture.... You can look at the person on TV and size them up on the spot."
Such snap judgments can also work the other way, something Bill Clinton showed with seeming ease when he responded to the same questioner. "Tell me how it's affected you again," he said as he walked up to her and looked straight into her eyes.
Where Bush appeared impatient, "Clinton steps in and empathizes, empathizes, empathizes," says University of Pennsylvania political scientist Kathleen Hall Jamieson, coauthor of unSpun: Finding Facts in a World of Disinformation. "So it's declared a victory for Clinton."
Bush later suggested that his gesture may, in fact, have revealed something about his discomfort with the debate. "Was I glad when the damn thing was over?" he said to PBS Newshour anchor Jim Lehrer. "Yeah."