Obama created something of a kerfuffle yesterday when he dismissed inferences about his relationship with Putin drawn from body language. Obama said that Putin slouches, and often behaves like a bored schoolboy at the back of the classroom.
Interestingly, Putin’s posture has been discussed for going on a decade now. This article from the Atlantic from June is of some interest in that regard:
Actually, what we saw today was a stark expression of what many who have closely observed Putin’s physicality have discovered over the last 13 years. In a valuable 2005 profile of Putin for The Atlantic, Paul Starobin hit upon one little-explored explanation for these tics: Putin is a possible stroke victim, and he may have befallen before he was even born.
Starobin cites Brenda L. Connors, a strategic research fellow at the Naval War College and former State Department official whose specialty is something called “movement analysis.” That is, she studies how gaits, hand gestures and facial expressions correlate not just to human emotions but also to styles of leadership: a kind of Max Weber of walking and talking. As Starobin wrote:
After a tour of her lab we watched a tape she had made of Putin, compiled mostly from Russian television footage. The tape rolled to a shot of Putin at his first inauguration, in the spring of 2000, at the Andrei Hall of the Great Kremlin Palace. “Here’s the picture,” she said, as we watched Putin enter the hall and stride down a long red carpet. I saw what she meant only when she slowed the tape — and when she did, I was taken aback. Putin’s left arm and leg were moving in an easy, natural rhythm. But his right arm, bent at the elbow, moved in a stiff way, as if jerked by the shoulder, and the right leg dragged, without absorbing his full weight. When she replayed the segment at normal speed, it was easy to pick up on the impediment, and then I had no trouble spotting it in other segments. All the momentum and energy in Putin’s gait comes from the left side; it is as if the right side is just along for the ride. Even the right side of his torso seems frozen. When he is holding a pen, his right hand appears to have only an awkward, tenuous grasp on it.
Retired Senator Bob Dole has similar movements, but his excuse was that he lost the use of his right arm from being hit by German machine gun fire in World War II. In Putin’s case, medical and physical therapy experts with whom Connors consulted suggested that Putin might have suffered a fetal stroke, or been permanently injured by forceps as he was being pulled out of his mother’s birth canal (a condition known as Erb’s palsy). Still another cause could be polio, to which, as a child growing up in postwar Leningrad, he’d have been very susceptible.
Here’s Starobin again: “Based on what she has seen and on her consultation with other experts, Connors doubts that Putin ever crawled as an infant; he seems to lack what is called contra-lateral movement and instead tends to move in a head-to-tail pattern, like a fish or a reptile.”
Presumably these conditions could also produce schoolboyish fidgitines.
Surely Putin is sensitive about this, and quite possibly Obama has been briefed about it: Putin would likely believe that Obama has been. Which means that Putin may read something into Obama’s remark, and maybe he would be right. Obama could have dismissed the body language question in many different ways that couldn’t be interpreted in the personally cutting way the posture remark could. If it wasn’t an intentional dig, it was a pretty big faux pas.