Politicians are aware that their hands speak. That's why they get special training in disciplining the digits. The palms-up hand shrug, for instance, should be avoided at all costs, as it signals helplessness and deviousness. One should never raise the arms too high, since this signals surrender.
Keeping such notions in mind, I listened to the hands in Monday night's debate to find out what the debaters really meant to say.
Paul Martin has the most active hands. They're rarely out of sight. They accent his words with a great lexicon of scoops, chops, wafts and juggles. They cup the globe and hold it out to you. They clear the air. All this gives the impression of someone who's on the job.
Money is falling from the sky, and he's catching it and channelling it your way. And all the while he's dealing cards, he's conducting an orchestra, he's flipping chunks of change at you like a guy casting bits of bread to ducks.
He's a multi-tasking money-Shiva. He's also a shrewd sideways chopper. He knows it's rude to point even at some prick so he turns sideways, opens his mitt vertically, and all the audience sees is that familiar giving palm, but Stephen Harper's getting all four fingers face on. He's being dissed in pantomime.
Jack Layton has the most conscious hands. They're deliberately on message. They're part of the team. They express equally, sometimes from the left, sometimes from the right, most often cooperatively in tandem. When he opens one palm at an angle while making a point, he looks like he's passing you your share.
He has politically correct egalitarian fingers. If one points, they all point, joining equally in the thrill. There's almost a priestly quality to the way he cups his hands. They remind me of that house-cupping all-state insurance ad: you're in good hands with Layton.
And when he talks of national unity, his hands are so consonant with his message, he interlocks his fingers in a deft blend. Tenderly, he reaches forward and, as though cupping a birthing head, proceeds to draw forth the new Canada from the womb of the old.
His most poetic hand-sequence, though, comes when he's asked about values. "First seniors," he says, holding out one pinkie as though he were counting. "They deserve dignity and respect long-term care, home care." Here he takes his fist and with great gentleness wraps it around that vulnerable pinkie like King Kong holding Faye Wray. He's a socialist and a literalist.
Gilles Duceppe couldn't care less about his hands or his hair or his suit. His most frequent gesture is to position his hands over the podium, palms facing one another about 6 inches apart, and then in progressive upward and outward swoops, move them further and then further still apart. His hands are separatists. They are on message.
Separatism is what motivates him. This becomes clear toward the end of the debate when he talks about the corruption scandal. He's trying to say, "The biggest danger is not talking about it," but his hands are immobile and out of sight, and he gets tongue-tied. There are a few anxious facial tics, and he's in serious trouble till he brings on the hands. As soon as he makes the familiar separation motions he's able to talk again.
Stephen Harper mostly keeps his hands out of camera range, as though he doesn't trust them to behave. When a gesticulation does escape him, it's usually a forward palms-out push. In contrast to Layton's midwife routine, this looks like a guy trying to push a fetus back into someone.
And he's obviously been told not to point. Pointing is rude. But in the last 15 minutes that naughty index finger gets all excited. It pops up a little uncertainly, veering off to one side, kind of like a wee little boner wagging itself in Martin's face.
Another gesture he uses to accent his words mimes the turning of the pages of an enormous accounting ledger before your very eyes. Alternately, he looks like he's removing something from a pigeonhole with one hand and transferring it to a new, better pigeonhole with the other.
Mostly, though, all you see are the alien antennae of his two thumb tops as he grabs the podium, hands out of sight. This, according to psychologists, is not a good sign. Hiding the hands can signal deviousness. Who knew?