It was George Bush senior who, while campaigning for the 1988 US presidential election asked voters to “read my lips; no new taxes”.
There are those who claim the slogan helped Bush win the election.
Afterwards, of course, he promptly raised taxes.
The lesson? The last thing you should be reading, when you are trying to make sense of a politician or public official is their lips.
There are a myriad other signs and signals that may point to the more hidden depths, or some would say, shallows of public personality, particularly those to whom we surrender our vote.
There are only two exceptions I can think of. Italy’s former president Silvio Berlusconi and his shameless love of hair dye, Botox and designer fashion left little hidden or up to the imagination.
The same goes for ANC Youth League president Julius Malema’s post-modern, designer revolutionary flourishes, from the Che Guevara beret to the slogans on T-shirts.
Juju’s use of symbols is so contrived and obvious you’d need to be blind not to interpret their intention and meaning.
Pity he can’t seem to cultivate a nice mature Guevara or Fidel Castro beard to finish it all off.
There are two visible external markers that distinguish Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe from the clutch of other governing party politicians that surround him.
While many ANC members, including President Jacob Zuma, wear their “chiskop” like a club tie, Motlanthe refuses to surrender to the fashion.
Like former presidents Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki, the deputy president’s full head of hair marks him as his own man, comfortable and confident in his own skin.
Then there’s his greying goatee, neatly clipped like a suburban lawn, which brings not only an air of sophistication but also gravitas and perhaps symbolises his trade-union roots.
Motlanthe’s goatee has erroneously been described as “Lenin-like” but the Russian Marxist always topped off his chin growth with an impressive moustache.
Motlanthe’s goatee is more Abraham Lincoln than Lenin.SA Communist Party chairperson and ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe’s goatee is generally an unkempt mess with bits of flyaway hair catching the light.
His goatee is as crotchety and impolite as its cultivator.While some politicians take great care with their appearance, they get defensive when someone notices or points this out publicly (thus disproving part of the politician’s code of practice that you can “fool some of the people some of the time”).
In 2002, former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder threatened to sue a news agency for libel after a story that suggested he dyed his hair.
While President Robert Mugabe is pretty shameless about his Adolf Hitler moustache (no Western leader would dare grow one for what it symbolises), he is rather tetchy about his hair and the fact that it is darker now than when he was a young revolutionary.
The new Margaret Thatcher biopic, The Iron Lady, starring veteran actress Meryl Streep reminds us, writes Robin Givhan in the Daily Beast that “her handbags came to signify femininity and toughness”.
“Their style was unassuming: slender, structured, solid and ladylike.
They looked perfectly at home with Thatcher’s dignified suits and oh-so-British hats.“But those bags instilled fear in colleagues and combatants alike.”
The way politicians present themselves in public is the human equivalent of those modern fishing lures with their flamboyant feathers, bobbles and beads.
Sometimes the clever fish know they’ve been tossed a fake, most times the fish that swim with the shoal fall for it, hook, line and sinker.
That’s politics for you.
» Thamm is a freelance journalist
- City Press