The Corner

The Art of Swagger: The Artist, Obama, and the Republican Candidates

President Obama is a swaggerer. No other word for it. Look at the way he moves across the stage, notice his little gestures, the very way he holds his head when walking. This guy is swaggering and that is not good news for Republicans. Despite the argument that the economy is the issue, we don’t vote for policies, we vote for individual human beings. And a swaggering attractiveness is one of the qualities we look for in a president. FDR, wheel-chair bound, always gave the impression of swaggering, and he was irresistible to the electorate.

This all came to me, oddly enough, while I was watching the Academy Award–winning movie, The Artist. At the beginning of this (almost) silent movie, there is a scene that sets the tone, immediately establishing the personality of 1920s movie idol George Valentin (played by French actor Jean Dujardin). At the end of a screening of one of his movies, Valentin comes on stage to receive the adulation — indeed, the adoration — of the audience. From the moment he appears, he shows off shamelessly. He glides like a dancer — which he is — and moves as if everything in the world belongs to him, which, in that moment, it does. He is a star, and the only word that can convey what he is doing is swaggering. It is this swagger, much more eye-catching and attractive than a mere strut, that makes him a star, and it is his stardom out of which his swagger emerges. When he loses his stardom he moves differently, slowly, hesitantly, as if he is lost, which, of course, he is.

Swagger is an elusive quality. Clark Gable had it, but Gary Cooper didn’t. Bette Davis had it, but Joan Crawford did not. Babe Ruth? The Sultan of Swagger. Joe DiMaggio couldn’t swagger if he took lessons. John Wayne had it in abundance. Clint Eastwood has always lacked it. As an actor Ronald Reagan did not have swagger, but as a politician he fairly radiated it. In the wrong hands — or the wrong body or platform persona — swagger can be seen as insolent, egocentric, and annoying. But when it is the result of inner peace, well-grounded confidence, and a sense of self-worth that comes not from inordinate pride but from a feeling of oneness with the universe, it is compelling. Obama may not deserve to feel this way, but his swagger tells us that is the way he feels.

Of course it can be argued Governor Rick Perry of Texas had swagger to spare, and look what happened to him. Yes, his reputation for swagger was precisely the attribute which originally set him apart from the other Republican candidates. But it was soon apparent that what we all thought was swagger was really a self-confidence that had no foundation in fact. His out-of-sync sinister smile didn’t help, but it was his inability to be “in the moment,” as all real swaggerers are, that caused his downfall. People with swagger are at ease with themselves and he never seemed to be.

Mitt Romney is the anti-swagger candidate. Nothing about him conveys that special grace. His constant smile is at first attractive, but through overuse it has taken on the grim appearance of a rictus. Rick Santorum? Swaggerers don’t wear vest sweaters. Newt Gingrich, given the size of his self-esteem should have swagger but doesn’t have a bit of it. Ron Paul probably believes that since he can’t find swagger in the Constitution he should not be in favor of it.

So there is Obama, at ease with himself, possessing what might be called a quiet swagger, maybe just a tad too self-satisfied. But the man is an attractive political personality, and part of that attractiveness is his swaggering sense of self, conveyed not just by what he says, but by the way he moves, the way he is. If you don’t believe that something like this can turn an election, here are words from John Henry Newman (who lacked swagger but made up for it in saintliness):

The heart is commonly reached, not through reason, but through the imagination, by means of direct impressions. . . . Persons influence us, voices melt us, looks subdue us, deeds inflame us . . .

And, he might have added, swaggering captures our imaginations. Thus far, Republican candidates have done everything but the essential thing — capture the imagination of the American people, not just because of the arguments they make or fail to make, but because the current four contenders have no swagger about them. There is a swagger gap. And it could win the election for Obama. 

— William F. Gavin is author of Speechwright and a former assistant to Senator James L. Buckley.



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