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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

Hail the awkward and creepy

By RICK SALUTIN
Globe and Mail
Friday, Sep. 26, 2003

They -- in this case, the journalistic ''they'' -- are trying to convince us that a new, relaxed Dalton McGuinty is running in this Ontario election. ''Observers have commented on how much more self-assured McGuinty has seemed,'' said the Star.

The evidence is a bit slight: The Liberal Leader moves his hands a lot, etc. After this week's TV debate, the Globe's John Ibbitson described Mr. McGuinty "leaning comfortably against the podium (rebutting any suggestion of nervousness)"; while the Post's John Ivison (I know, it's like Thompson and Thomson from the Tintin books) said, "He looked relaxed, leaning on the centre podium and turning to face whichever of the other two leaders chose to attack him."

I don't know how you settle this kind of disagreement, but to me he didn't look relaxed; he looked like a person trying to look relaxed, which is a very uncomfortable look, indeed. You try it. As if he learned from his media coaches, who enthusiastically revealed their secrets to the same journalists who covered the debate, a few tricks guaranteed to indicate relaxation and confidence. (Lean forward this far and no more. Never lean back . . .) The odd thing is how obvious the studied effort was. It was like Italian commedia dell'arte, whose actors indicate emotions through standardized gestures and masks. Or the overdrawn facial expressions in silent movies. Or wrestlers from the former WWF, the commedia performers of today, who can project character to the top of a stadium through motion and posture. In fact, most reports talked about the Liberal Leader "appearing," rather than being, relaxed.

I'm not saying the journalists were lying or dim, but I do feel, like every other tip you get, that you should consider the source. I'm afraid most journalists are not very good at distinguishing between sham sincerity or feigned emotion, and the real thing. In fact, I'd say they are less astute at detecting b-s than most people. I write this with chagrin, as someone who does journalism, too. But in my experience, one reason people enter the field (and this holds for writers, too) is that they are socially awkward and perhaps a bit obtuse, so they choose a profession that gives them a pretext to get quasi-intimate with others about important or private matters. It's not the best starting point from which to assess personal qualities like confidence.

Tony Blair is a great example of this syndrome. Most media treated his testimony at the Hutton inquiry admiringly, as performance: ". . . bravura performance . . . a consummate performer . . . a characteristically assured performance . . . assured, measured and softly spoken performance. . ."

And this, from The Independent: "He

is fluent and coherent and gives every

appearance of sincerity." Think about that last phrase. Most people have little trouble spotting the mode of phony sincerity, including lines like, I can't stand phonies. The appearance of sincerity gets far more respect in the media than outside it: Lower your voice, flare your nostrils, get indignant à la Blair, and you receive the benefit of the doubt. That he may sincerely think he is being sincere changes nothing.

"Whatever else you say about Tony Blair, he certainly does a very good Tony Blair," wrote the Mirror. This implies the British PM has mocked up a character he wants the world to buy. But it also suggests something broader, even tragic, about the human condition. "Most people do a pretty good imitation of themselves," I once heard a shrink say. Since they get so close, he went on, it's mainly lack of courage that stops them from being, rather than just acting the role of, the person they truly are. Tony Blair, it seems to me, is a pallid player; he never edges very close to honesty; he sticks to a made-up part. A leader in our time who came closer to being himself may have been Bill Clinton: always performing and calculating, yet somehow near enough what he "really" was, to inspire rare loyalty, affection -- and hate, among many who only knew his public self.

As for Dalton McGuinty: I don't find him more relaxed and easy. I still find him a bit creepy, although I also found debate host Mary Lou Finlay a bit creepy. But so what? It's almost reassuring. Who wants a leader who can mount a tractor, or hold barbed wire in one hand and a Get Out of Jail Free card in the other -- as Ernie Eves did this week? The only thing worse than looking awkward doing those stunts would be looking comfy. So more power to awkward Dalton, including political power, though I'll probably vote for NDP incumbent Rosario Marchese in my riding, for the usual motley bundle of reasons. I am, however, considering a write-in: Citytv reporter Adam Vaughn, for providing the most grounded, believable moment of the TV debate, when he asked Ernie Eves, with utter conviction: What are you going to cut, and what are you going to sell off, next?



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