The best part of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s speech to Congress on Wednesday was not, in my opinion, the speech (good) or the response (also good) or even the almost tracksuit he donned for the occasion (very effective). Instead, it was a series of small incidents that took place when he presented the Ukrainian flag to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Zelensky had explained the meaning of the flag (it was taken from a battle at Bakhmut) with decorum and pomp, just before the handover. But then efficiency got the better of him. He took the flag out of a folder and shook it out as if it were clothing. He checked, looking back and forth to make sure he was facing the right direction, then handed a crumpled piece of the middle to Pelosi. She accepted it when he tiptoed up to shake her hand and kiss her on the cheek. When Pelosi handed him the American flag in exchange, practical considerations once again trumped ceremony: The American flag was folded in a large (triangular, cumbersome) glass presentation box, so Zelensky took it. “I can take it,” he said, reaching out to ease her hand like it was a bag of groceries.
Some people laughed at this; that bit of amateurish goodwill elevated the moment above the routine choreography that characterizes much of our political theater. The solemn exchange of symbols seemed warmer and more human than it would have been if everything had gone smoothly. Sometimes a gesture because It’s not smooth, it looks more genuine.
This is Zelensky’s gift. If there is such a thing as politics sprezzatura– the art of appearing unstudied, natural, spontaneous – has mastered it. The results speak for themselves. As shows of power and politicking, Zelensky’s speech was an idiosyncratic but overwhelming success. He drew not one, but several bipartisan standing ovations from a deeply polarized Congress. The smooth comedy of the flag exchange was only added to by the extraordinary spectacle of the Ukrainian President standing in the House chamber while the Vice President and Speaker of the House held up a Ukrainian flag behind him. It could be said that the focus was not perfect was what made the landing effective.
I am fully aware that Zelensky’s speeches are expertly calibrated to engage his audience. My colleague Fred Kaplan has written about everything he did well in his address to Congress, from astute references drawing parallels between the American fight for freedom and the current situation in Ukraine to characterizing his support for Ukraine as “our First joint victory: We defeated Russia in the battle for the minds of the world. Zelensky’s claim that US aid is “not charity,” but an investment, is perfectly intentional. While triggering tropes of the Revolutionary War, World War II, Kennedy’s “We have nothing to fear” speech, and America’s love of entrepreneurship, he also challenged the narrative that Ukraine is a “welfare queen” (as said one of Trump’s sons). He has portrayed his country as self-defended and self-sufficient, as good at being rigid as Britain ever was, offering a moving portrait of Ukrainians celebrating Christmas without heat or running water, without flinching. nor submit to Russian sabotage:
We will celebrate Christmas. Let’s celebrate Christmas and, even if there is no electricity, the light of our faith in ourselves will not go out. If Russia… if Russian missiles attack us, we will do everything we can to protect ourselves. If we are attacked by Iranian drones and our people have to go to bomb shelters on Christmas Eve, the Ukrainians will still sit at the festive table and cheer each other on. And we don’t have, we don’t have to know everyone’s desire, since we know that all of us, millions of Ukrainians, want the same thing: Victory. Just victory.
This is somewhat hectic. is somehow plus poignant because it’s delivered in halting English by a short, not particularly muscular man whose choices communicate that he’s too busy and tired to bombast. Zelensky’s behavior is in stark contrast to Putin’s; the latter’s understanding of power rests on grueling displays of his own exceptionalism, whether riding a horse while he flexes shirtless or sitting at a comically long table meant to convey opulence and majesty. But Zelensky also challenges American ideas about how leaders look and act. He doesn’t fit our absurd but wildly prescriptive stereotypes of what courage, power and determination (and presidents) look like (tall, polished, confident) and yet his presence there in that chamber, handing over that flag, is a clear test of courage, resourcefulness and resilience.
Having watched Zelensky for a long time, we should be widely familiar with the techniques he deploys to communicate political urgency. He is a seasoned image maker, a seasoned producer of compelling narratives, and a gifted and beloved actor. The man rose to power due to the popularity he found while he was starring in a famous sitcom about an everyman whose tirade about corruption goes viral and makes him president. What sets Zelensky apart is how he managed to bring the story he starred in to life: he named a political party after his show and reproduced the show’s backwards premise, in which an exasperated man with no political experience becomes readable as so authentic and appealing to win a presidential election.
Zelensky’s performance art (or seeming lack thereof) is, at least in part, a choice, and it goes well beyond his wardrobe. Yes, a lot has rightly been said about Zelensky’s decision to wear military clothing.that but not military clothing, like olive green T-shirts and sweatshirts and cargo pants. While curiously decried as a violation of etiquette by conservative elites like Tucker Carlson, most can acknowledge that the uniform is conceptually astute and communicates urgency (no time for suits! We are in war!) and solidarity with Ukrainian soldiers without the stolen courage or jarring images of a democratic leader in real uniform. He also models, and arguably honors, the way that Ukrainian civilians are rising up, even without weapons or military training, to defend their country. On the surface, he walks a surprisingly fine line, celebrating simplicity and avoiding luxury and decadence without polarizing political overtones that might alienate potential allies (this isn’t Fidel Castro’s uniform, for example).
What about Zelensky’s less happy choices? In his speech to Congress, for example, he made an incredibly silly pun on Putin: “We developed strong security guarantees for our country and for all of Europe and the world, together with you. And also together with you, we will put in their place all those who will challenge freedom. Place-inhe says slowly, making sure to drive the joke home. It’s not a big joke! In March, when she addressed Congress for the first time via video conference, she strangely invoked Martin Luther King Jr. to call for defense systems and aircraft: “’I have a dream.’ These words are known to each of you today. I can say that I have a need: I need to protect our sky”. That need is not related to King’s message; the reference is more confusing than explanatory. It had an oddly stark effect when he began his speech before the United States Congress on that occasion: in addition to speaking Ukrainian, he read his speech like an academic presenting a conference paper, barely feigning eye contact with the camera. camera. This was especially disconcerting. Zelensky understands what makes television effective, so much so that he interrupted that same speech to present a video he had made to move Congress to action. It is composed of throbbing violins and features before-and-after images of Ukrainian cities, bloody children, crying women. It is not, to put it mildly, a restrained presentation.
So what is going on here? I think the MLK Jr. quote was a simple misstep. But the rest makes some sense. Take Putin’s pun. I may not find it particularly funny, but the joke is not made for me. That little hint was clearly intended for Putin, who is one of the many audiences Zelensky communicates with whenever he speaks. It is perhaps hard to imagine that Putin would care, but then again, leaders who feel compelled to excel in their power and masculinity are often fragile. Zelensky made a similar pun in his comedy, Servant of the Peoplelike me wrote in march. It’s no less silly than this: while he’s choosing a luxury watch, Zelensky’s character is offered a Swiss-made Hublot, supposedly worn by Putin. “Putin Hublot?” Zelensky asks, as confirmation. It’s a silly pun: “Putin Huylo” is a Ukrainian folk chant against Putin. They sound alike. The end. (When a Russian station broadcast Servant of the People in Russia, censored that joke. The ensuing mockery of Putin resulted in the sitcom being pulled; was on the air for exactly one day).
If Putin seems frail for a strongman, it is interesting to consider how robust Zelensky appears, lacking the compulsion to wield power and potency, by contrast. Even and especially when the shows in which he participates lose a bit of solemnity due to the affability and simplicity of the Ukrainian president. It takes a gifted artist to turn everydayness (like being short or young or not particularly fit) into political capital. And that is what Zelensky has done.
Zelensky’s modest demeanor—the sweatshirt, the beard, the bags under his eyes, even the silly jokes—inspires precisely because it is fundamentally democratizing. His message is that you don’t have to be a great man or an exceptional person to defend the country. He’s doing it because he has to, not because he’s awesome. This is, in the understated way, extraordinary showmanship of him. At the end of Zelensky’s March speech to Congress, after reading his speech in Ukrainian and then showing the extremely moving video of him, Zelensky came back on camera It was then that he switched to English. The effect is electric: if you’re American, you feel much, much closer to the viewer now that a performer isn’t mediating your experience of his speech. “Peace in your country no longer depends only on you and your people,” he says. “It depends on those who are by your side, on those who are strong. Strong does not mean big. Strong is brave and ready to fight for the lives of his citizens and the citizens of the world.” Like Zelensky.