“Would the world have as much time for Aung San Suu Kyi if she didn’t seem so elegant and poised?” This is the first line of American journalist Hannah Beech’s column in a recent issue of Time magazine. Titled Lady, Your Halo’s Slipping, it develops into a fascinating commentary, arguing why it was “mental toughness more than beatific repose” that allowed Myanmar’s exemplary champion of democracy to survive her long incarceration. The piece notes the trademark blossoms in her hair that make Suu Kyi stand for a gracious, transcendental purity, yet underlines her exacting intellectual presence.
Beech’s insight is novel as it subtly tries to separate the wheat from the chaff, without losing sight of the merits of both. Keenly interested in clothing, accessory, form, posture and body language as a powerful peek into reading people in public life, this piece made me think about the halos and “looks” of numerous political leaders.
Is forbearance a matter of body language as much as about mental faculties? How, for instance, do statesmen look different from spiritual leaders like the Dalai Lama, whose extraordinary mix of calm and humour is unique? Do brokers of peace look different from architects of war? How is Suu Kyi’s steel magnolia personality different from Margaret Thatcher’s iron armour?
It’s a truism that the world takes well-groomed leaders more seriously than frumpy scatterbrains. But the fact is: it would be hard to locate a leader who looked unkempt. And, if you closely read popular photographs, you would find some patterns. Every leader has a certain peculiarity of clothing, appearance, gesture or behaviour.
Besides, women seem to have a different repose than men despite similar long incarcerations or public and personal trials. Aung San Suu Kyi, Iranian human rights activist Shirin Ebadi, Swedish sociologist and politician Alva Myrdal and American feminist and social workers Jane Adams (all Nobel Laureates, perhaps not coincidentally)—all had something very “identifiable” about them. Suu Kyi’s flowers, Ebadi’s neatly groomed hair with sharp (but never androgynous) jackets and a well-chosen necklace, Myrdal’s salt and pepper chignon, Adams’s large hats and limpid eyes stood out. Each lady appears enviably “stoic”. However, this same brand of stoicism “looks” different in men. Consider Mahatma Gandhi’s unflinching briskness of gait and movement, Martin Luther King’s gentlemanly determination; Nelson Mandela’s warm, all-encompassing smile. With age, there is a vintage mellowing traceable in each, yet a strand of body language or posture remains immensely recognizable from their younger days.
In contrast, leaders who have been more political than peace brokering, like Margaret Thatcher, Indira Gandhi, Angela Merkel, Benazir Bhutto, Sirimavo Bandaranaike, J. Jayalalithaa to name some (each well groomed in their own way) don’t have that stoic repose even when they are steely. The halo is missing. Indira Gandhi’s posture was as erect as a leader’s should be, yet it lacked empathy, Bhutto alternated between extreme strength and vulnerability; Jayalalithaa looks too self-occupied most of the time. Thatcher has often been seen as a hard, unyielding person.
A study of another kind was Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, who looked suspicious and ruthless. In extreme contrast, if the Dalai Lama has an inescapably empathetic personality, let’s not forget Mother Teresa. She had a saintly look, if there is anything like that.
To go back to the first question: does leadership or statesmanship have a certain look about it? The answer seems to be a quick yes. Yet this affirmation is open and available to a series of post mortems over the years that must yield the same analysis every time yet bring new insights.
This fortnightly series is a comment on popular culture statements made through actions or words.