DEVENS — With a 6-foot-6 frame and a table-slapping style, Charlie Baker has been coached by aides to think “less is more” when it comes to hand gestures. And for the first six minutes of Baker’s address to a jobs summit in Devens the other day, those hands mostly cooperated, like active children trying their best to sit still in a classroom — a finger twirl here, a twist of the wedding band there, an occasional “Clinton thumb” for emphasis.
Then — thwack! Hands up and out suddenly from the lectern, as if tracing an exaggerated V, the right smacking the skinny gooseneck of the microphone and briefly interrupting a point he was making about the electrifying topic of the day — regional workforce development boards.
From the same lectern on the same afternoon, Martha Coakley was, comparatively, a torrent of gesture, at one point, waving like an airplane; at another, making like she was pulling a rope; at another, releasing a Wakefield-esque imaginary knuckleball into the air.
Academics and analysts of all kinds have tried to untangle the significance of hand gestures and body language in political contests, down to the significance of open palms and pointing motions. A highly unscientific look at one recent moment in the Massachusetts gubernatorial race offered a more modest revelation: that one candidate talks a lot with her hands and the other is trying hard not to.
“You gonna give me a hard time about knocking down the microphone?” Baker said on that recent afternoon, grinning as he came down off the stage, knowing a reporter had been watching his hands.
Change is hard, he said. “What people have said to me is, ‘You start waving them around. It’s a distraction, and people aren’t hearing what you’re saying. They’re watching you wave your hands around.’ So I’ve tried to dramatically reduce the amount of time I spend doing that.”
Coakley, on the other hand, had moved her hands — and arms — without restraint while addressing the workforce summit, talking about investing in infrastructure statewide and awarding regional grants to encourage experimentation.
Far more animated in person than the stiff caricature that some remember from 2010, Coakley underscored her remarks with a wide array of active gestures. She drew a big circle in the air one moment, and made a square with the thumb and index finger of each hand the next. Once she held up her right arm, hand palm-up, like a waiter lofting a tray. A few times she held her hands in front of her as if pressing the sides of an imaginary box then segued from that pose into a two-handed chop.
“She’s the most animated I’ve ever seen her,” said Jeff Turgeon, executive director of the Central Massachusetts Workforce Investment Board, after she stepped off the stage to meet reporters. Coakley said she doesn’t think much, when giving a speech, about what her hands are up to.
“I’m a trial lawyer. I’m used to giving arguments in front of juries,” the attorney general said. She views her gesticulations as an unconscious sign of being “enthusiastic about meeting folks.”
The two gubernatorial candidates have a few gestures in common. Each occasionally pressed their extended fingertips on the lectern top like a puppeteer preparing to work a marionette, tumbled their hands forward like a basketball referee signalling traveling, or employed that familiar Clinton move, gesturing with an extended thumb but a closed fist.
But the differences were too many to count on one hand. And if Coakley and Baker were doing just that, they would do it differently, too: Coakley several times enumerated points by starting with her pinky finger and working up to her thumb, while Baker each time counted out points by starting with his thumb and working down the other way.
Voters: Make of it what you will.