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Body language: Love or hate him, it was all Joe

Body language: Love or hate him, it was all Joe

October 13th, 2012 in News

Republican vice presidential nominee Rep. Paul Ryan, of Wisconsin, right, watches as Vice President Joe Biden, speaks during Thursday's vice presidential debate at Centre College.

Photo by The Associated Press /News Tribune.

This time, they didn't need Big Bird.

Because really, who needed a "Sesame Street" character to grab all the post-debate attention when there was Joe Biden's smile- or laugh, chuckle, grimace, grin, smirk, or "goofy face," according to various descriptions?

Whether you loved or hated his performance - a decision that seemed to split (surprise!) along partisan lines - it was Biden who dominated the conversation during and after Thursday's vice-presidential debate, with his animated facial reactions to almost anything his opponent, Paul Ryan, uttered.

The vice president also came up with the two catchiest phrases of the night - "bunch of malarkey" and "bunch of stuff" - both of them employed (and tweeted, and retweeted) to paint his Republican opponent as untruthful.

Some impressions of the night, from political communication and body language experts:


"I'm not sure what that was - a smile? Not really. Not a laugh, either," said Katherine Hall Jamieson, a professor of political communication at the University of Pennsylvania. "And actually not a grin. It was really just something that said, "I have an answer to that and I'm holding it."'

Was it appropriate?

That, said Jamieson, would simply depend on one's allegiance. "The Republicans are trying to advance the argument that Biden was behaving in an unhinged fashion," she said. The Democrats, of course, thought it was great.

Another expert in the field thinks that even if some viewers were offended by the smiling, for lack of a better word, it helped Biden control the agenda.

"I think it was part of an overall strategy to keep Ryan off stride," said Jerry Shuster, who teaches political communication at the University of Pittsburgh. "He really couldn't ever finish a thought."

Jamieson echoed that: "Whenever you're paying attention to the person reacting, it draws attention from the person talking," she said.

In any case, it seemed to be just what President Barack Obama needed from his running mate.

"If I were the president's doctor I would say, "This is just what I ordered,"' Shuster said.


While many found Biden's grins infectious, some found them immature.

"That mugging, those condescending looks - it was a complete turnoff," said body language expert Lillian Glass, author of the upcoming "Body Language Advantage." "He was bullying, he was smug, he interrupted ... I think he lost a lot of his message based on facial gestures."

Biden may have been deemed the winner by many, but "from a body language point of view, he did not win this debate," she said.


Even though he's much less experienced than Biden, experts agreed that it was a first good outing for Ryan.

"He passed the threshold of being an acceptable vice president - through his command of foreign policy, which is a difficult threshold since he's a domestic policy wonk," said Jamieson.

"He was more gentlemanly," said Glass, in Los Angeles. "He looked at the vice president, and didn't ever mug, or make a face."


Skillful moderator or not, this debate was much more substantial than the Obama-Romney face-off because the two men answered each other and really engaged in a give-and-take.

"Both candidates were effective in rebuttal," said Jamieson. "But especially Biden controlled the agenda by rebutting EVERYTHING - both in words and in gestures."


At 69, Biden was debating a man 27 years his junior. That was not lost on many in the Twitterverse, who sent various tweets referring to Ryan's tender age of 42.

But nowhere was Biden's consciousness of the age gap clearer than when Ryan mentioned President John F. Kennedy as an example of a president who made certain cuts before.

"Oh, now you're Jack Kennedy!" Biden quipped - perhaps eager to channel Sen. Lloyd Bentsen and his famous "You're no Jack Kennedy" quip to then opponent Dan Quayle.

"I knew that was coming because of the age difference," says Shuster. "I even told my students in class today to expect it."