By Kris Kitto - 09/09/08 05:43 PM EDT
Move over, Donna Brazile. The drove of experts analyzing politicians is getting bigger.
But unlike Brazile, who rose from the ranks of Capitol Hill aides and campaign staffers to pontificate from her CNN perch, this new class of know-it-alls comes from the “Every Breath You Take” school of political punditry. The one difference from Police frontman Sting’s strategy of watching “every move, every bond and every step” they take is that these analysts pore over politicians’ every facial twitch, hand flip and pen stroke.
The handwriting decoders, facial expression experts and body language prophets have, in great force, been brought into the country’s extensive round-the-clock political discourse.
They appear regularly on Fox News’s “The O’Reilly Factor” to dissect the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s arm waving. They claim they could see portents of former Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards’s infidelity by the way he scripts his letters. They write books with titles like Sex, Lies and Handwriting and Face Time: How the 2008 Presidential Race Reveals the Importance of Being ON-EMOTION in Politics, Business, and in Life.
Their proclamations drip with intrigue, yet we would like to conduct some analysis of our own, namely: Who are you “beyond-words” experts, where did you come from, and why are we seeing more of you these days?
Many of these experts say they’ve become primetime talking heads because America wants to know more, more, more about their elected officials.
“People say to me, ‘Tell me about Obama; I don’t really know who he is,’ ” handwriting expert Michelle Dresbold says of the constant inquiries she receives about Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, the 2008 Democratic presidential candidate.
Dresbold took a class in handwriting profiling 15 years ago in her native Pittsburgh and has since become a nationally recognized graphologist (the academic term for an expert in handwriting analysis) who has trained with the United States Secret Service. She writes a syndicated newspaper column called “The Handwriting Doctor” and penned the book Sex, Lies and Handwriting.
She said she could see from early analysis of President George W. Bush’s handwriting that “he may say one thing and do something else.” (“It was the first time I got hate mail, and I was like, ‘Oh, God, I don’t know about this political stuff,’ ” Dresbold recalls.) She brings up a pre-scandal handwriting analysis she did on Edwards. She spotted one of the “d’s” in “Edwards” falling “completely to the right,” signifying “someone who is sort of losing their logic and going over into their emotion.”
Working in tandem with the public’s hunger for more information about their elected officials is politicians’ choreographing their every move. Citizens feel they don’t know enough about their representatives. As a result, they rely more on people like Dresbold and Arlyn Imberman, another graphologist who analyzes the handwriting of political figures.
“Everything is so carefully crafted that you begin to wonder, ‘My God, will I ever begin to know who this person is?’ ” Imberman says. She’s a former human resources executive who plunged into a three-year study of graphology with one of the area’s pioneers, an Austrian named Felix Klein. She recognizes a “tremendous amount of skepticism” in the U.S. around handwriting analysis but counters criticism by describing the frequency with which she is asked to lend her skills on elected officials or anyone else in the news.
“When Michael Jackson had his scandal, I was called,” she said. “When Ken Lay had his scandal, I was called. If it’s the birthday of an important person whose writing I have, I am called,” she says. Her book, Signature for Success, includes handwriting analyses of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Barbara Walters and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Her analysis of Jackson’s signature, included in her book, points out that “the M in Michael shoots way up,” which shows “Jackson’s sense of self-importance.” As for Lay, he “mixes upper and lower cases, indicating duplicity,” she says in her book.
As for Imberman’s take on Onassis — “her leftward slant shows independence and fortitude”; Walters — “a thinking type who is careful, organized, and logical in the implementation of her letters”; and Bloomberg — “has a smart, finely tuned mind, as evidenced in the simplifications, speed, and connectedness of the letter forms.
Much as politicians’ handwriting can be revelatory, their facial expressions are attracting sharp interest these days, too. Dan Hill, a facial expressions expert, has distinguished himself as one of the experts who can see what’s really behind a grimace from Obama or a smile from Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain (Ariz.).
“I’ve been on TV at least 80 times in the past year now — Fox, CNN, MSNBC, coverage on LaTimes.com, Houston Chronicle, radio interviews,” says Hill, an expert at reading facial expressions and the president of the Minneapolis-based firm Sensory Logic. He received a master’s degree in creative writing from Brown University and a Ph.D. in English literature from Rutgers University, but Hill remembers how vital nonverbal communication was to him when he lived in Italy as a boy and was still learning the language.
A decade ago he began studying nonverbal communication after an article on breakthroughs in brain science piqued his interest. Not surprisingly, he takes a scientific approach to his area of expertise, relying on the proven premise that the face expresses seven core emotions (surprise, fear, anger, sadness, disgust, contempt and happiness).
Hill began applying his knowledge to the 2004 presidential candidates. He says he received between 10 and 15 media hits, characterizing them as more “on the humorous side.”
People are taking his analysis more seriously during this election cycle, though, partly because the two presidential candidates’ themes of “Change You Can Believe In” and “Straight Talk Express” are based on the idea of authenticity, Hill says.
As a result, people are looking to clues like facial expressions to decide whether the candidates “are true to what [they are] saying,” he says.
Of course, there are those who are skeptical of this new pack of experts.
Merrie Spaeth, a Republican consultant who runs a communications firm in Dallas, says the most reliable way to get to know politicians is to pay most attention to their words rather than guess at what their body language means. After all, most of us use words as a primary form of communication.
“We’re not going around making miming gestures,” she says in questioning why there’s so much attention paid to a politician’s every move. “What this [type of analysis] adds is clutter, and it [has] become popular because people are always looking to aggrandize themselves and slice their expertise into narrower and narrower and narrower slices.”
University of Southern California communications Professor Marty Kaplan says these experts’ growing popularity may be more a product of the constant need to fill the news hole than of a surge in interest in what they’re actually saying.
“Producers, bookers and hosts live or die on the basis of whether people will change the channel or not,” he wrote in an e-mail. “I don’t want to be too harsh on the credentialed people doing it, but on cable news, interpreting body language seems to me to be, more often than not, a novelty act, a stunt, yet another way for cable news to pretend to be offering useful civic information, while in fact purveying bread and circuses.”
Even some of these nonverbal communications experts find that their subject’s rising prominence comes with drawbacks. Karen Bradley, a University of Maryland professor certified in a movement analysis called Laban, says she’s hearing more empty rhetoric about nonverbal communications than anything else.
“It’s frustrating at this point because there are so many quote-end quote ‘body language experts’ out there,” she says, adding that many of them are willing to say things like, “Oh, yes, when he crossed his arms, that meant this.”
Instead, her form of movement analysis relies on observing someone over time.
But she and her colleagues have become their own best advocates, countering any skepticism by saying their craft allows them into another person’s mind, and tossing out other morsels that tickle human curiosity.
“Many people keep a lot of things hidden,” Dresbold says, “and [graphology] is one more tool to see what’s underneath the surface of the person.”