The best part of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s address to Congress on Wednesday was not, in my opinion, the speech (good) or the response (also good) or even the near-sweatsuit he donned for the occasion (very effective). It was instead a series of small incidents that took place when he presented the Ukrainian flag to Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Zelensky had explained the flag’s significance—it was taken from a battle in Bakhmut—with propriety and pomp, just before the handoff. But then efficiency overtook him. He removed the flag from a folder and shook it out like laundry. He checked, looking behind and in front of it to ensure it faced the right way, then handed a crumpled middle bit of it up to Pelosi. She accepted it as he sort of tiptoed higher to shake her hand and deliver a cheek kiss. When Pelosi presented the American flag to him in return, practical considerations once again trumped ceremony: The U.S. flag was folded into a big glass presentation case (triangular, cumbersome), so Zelensky reached for it. “I can hold,” he said, reaching out to relieve her as if it were a bag of groceries.
A few folks chuckled at this; that sprinkle of amateurish goodwill elevated the moment above the rote choreography that characterizes so much of our political theater. The solemn exchange of symbols seemed warmer and more human than it would have if all had gone off without a hitch. Sometimes a gesture, because it is not smooth, seems more genuine.
This is Zelensky’s gift. If there’s such a thing as political sprezzatura—the art of seeming unstudied, natural, spontaneous—he has mastered it. The results speak for themselves. As spectacles of power and politicking go, Zelensky’s address was an idiosyncratic but overwhelming success. He earned not one but several bipartisan standing ovations from a deeply polarized Congress. The mild comedy of the flag exchange only added to the extraordinary spectacle of the Ukrainian president standing in the House chamber while the vice president and the speaker of the House held a Ukrainian flag behind him. That the approach was not perfect was arguably what made the landing effective.
I am fully aware that Zelensky’s speeches are expertly calibrated to appeal to their audience. My colleague Fred Kaplan has written about everything he did right in his speech to Congress, from canny references that establish parallels between the American fight for freedom and Ukraine’s ongoing predicament to characterizing his support for Ukraine as “our first joint victory: We defeated Russia in the battle for minds of the world.” Zelensky’s assertion that American aid is “not charity,” but an investment, is perfectly intentional. While activating tropes from the Revolutionary War, World War II, FDR’s “We have nothing to fear” speech, and America’s love of entrepreneurs, he also contested the narrative that Ukraine is a “welfare queen” (as one of Trump’s sons put it).* He has presented his country as both self-defending and self-sufficient—as good at stiff-upper-lipping as Britain ever was—by offering a moving portrait of Ukrainians celebrating Christmas without heat or running water, uncowed and unbowed by Russian sabotage:
We’ll celebrate Christmas. Celebrate Christmas and, even if there is no electricity, the light of our faith in ourselves will not be put out. If Russian—if Russian missiles attack us, we’ll do our best to protect ourselves. If they attack us with Iranian drones and our people will have to go to bomb shelters on Christmas Eve, Ukrainians will still sit down at the holiday table and cheer up each other. And we don’t, don’t have to know everyone’s wish, as we know that all of us, millions of Ukrainians, wish the same: Victory. Only victory.
This is stirring stuff. It is somehow more stirring because it is delivered in halting English by a short, not particularly muscular man whose every choice communicates that he is too busy and tired to grandstand. Zelensky’s demeanor contrasts strikingly with Putin’s; the latter’s understanding of power relies on exhausting displays of his own exceptionalism, whether he’s riding a horse while flexing while shirtless or sitting at a comically long table meant to convey opulence and majesty. But Zelensky also challenges American ideas of how leaders look and act. He doesn’t fit our absurd but wildly prescriptive stereotypes about what courage and power and grit (and presidents) look like (tall, polished, assured), and yet his presence there in that chamber, handing off that flag, is clear proof of courage, resourcefulness, and resilience.
Having watched Zelensky for a long time now, we ought to be broadly familiar with the techniques he deploys to communicate political urgency. He’s an experienced image-maker, a seasoned producer of compelling narratives, and a gifted and beloved actor. The man came to power because of the popularity he found while starring in a famous sitcom about an Everyman whose rant about corruption goes viral and makes him president. What sets Zelensky apart is how he managed to make the story he starred in come true: He named a political party after his show and replicated the show’s topsy-turvy premise, in which an exasperated man with no political experience becomes legible as so authentic and appealing that he wins a presidential election.
Zelensky’s stagecraft (or the apparent lack of it) is at least partly a choice, and it goes far beyond his wardrobe. Yes, much has rightly been made of Zelensky’s decision to wear military-ish but not military clothing, like olive-green tees and sweatshirts and cargo pants. While conservative elites like Tucker Carlson rail quaintly against it as a breach of etiquette, most can acknowledge that the uniform is conceptually astute, communicating urgency (no time for suits! we are at war!) and solidarity with Ukrainian soldiers without the stolen valor or jarring visuals of a democratic leader in actual fatigues. It also models, and arguably honors, the way Ukrainian civilians are rising up, even without weapons or military training, to defend their country. As looks go, it walks an astonishingly thin line, celebrating plainness and eschewing luxury and decadence without any polarizing political overtones that might alienate potential allies (this is not Fidel Castro’s uniform, for example).
What of Zelensky’s less felicitous choices? In his speech to Congress, for example, he made an incredibly silly Putin pun: “We developed strong security guarantees for our country and for entire Europe and the world, together with you. And also together with you, we’ll put in place everyone who will defy freedom. Put-in,” he says slowly, making sure to drive the joke home. It’s not a great joke! Back in March, when he addressed Congress the first time via video conference, he bizarrely invoked Martin Luther King Jr. to ask for defense systems and planes: “ ‘I have a dream.’ These words are known to each of you today. I can say, I have a need: I need to protect our sky.” That need doesn’t map onto King’s message; the reference is more confusing than clarifying. He had an oddly stiff affect as he began his address to the United States Congress on that occasion—in addition to speaking Ukrainian, he read his speech like an academic delivering a conference paper, barely even feigning eye contact with the camera. This was especially perplexing. Zelensky understands what makes effective television, so much so that he interrupted that very speech to introduce a video he had made to move Congress to action. It is scored with throbbing violins and features before-and-after images of Ukrainian cities, bloodied children, weeping 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 other stuff makes a certain sense. Take the Putin pun. I may not find it particularly funny, but the joke is not made for me. That little dig was clearly meant for Putin, who is one of the numerous publics Zelensky is communicating with whenever he speaks. Perhaps it’s hard to imagine Putin would care, but then again, leaders who feel compelled to overperform their might and masculinity are often fragile. Zelensky made a similar pun in his sitcom, Servant of the People, as I wrote back in March. It’s no less dumb than this one: While choosing a luxury watch, Zelensky’s character is offered a Swiss-made Hublot, which Putin allegedly wears. “Putin Hublot?” Zelensky asks, as confirmation. It’s silly wordplay: “Putin Huylo” is a popular Ukrainian anti-Putin chant. They sound similar. The end. (When a Russian broadcaster aired Servant of the People in Russia, it censored that joke. The mockery of Putin that ensued resulted in the sitcom being pulled; it was on the air for exactly one day.)
If Putin seems brittle for a strongman, it’s interesting to consider how robust Zelensky—lacking the compulsion to perform power and potency—appears by contrast. Even and especially when the spectacles he participates in lose a little solemnity because of the Ukrainian president’s affability and matter-of-factness. It takes a gifted performer to turn ordinariness (like being short or young or not particularly fit) into political capital. And that’s what Zelensky has done.
Zelensky’s unassuming demeanor—the sweatshirt, the beard, the bags under the eyes, even the silly jokes—inspires precisely because it’s so fundamentally democratizing. His message is that it doesn’t take a huge man or exceptional person to defend the country. He’s doing it because he must, not because he’s amazing. This is, in its understated way, extraordinary showmanship. At the end of Zelensky’s March address to Congress, after he read his speech in Ukrainian and then showed his extremely moving video, Zelensky came back on camera. It was then that he switched to English. The effect is electric: If you’re American, he feels much, much closer to the viewer now that an interpreter isn’t mediating your experience of his speech. “Peace in your country doesn’t depend anymore only on you and your people,” he says. “It depends on those next to you, on those who are strong. Strong doesn’t mean big. Strong is brave and ready to fight for the life of his citizens, and citizens of the world.” Just like Zelensky.
Correction, Jan. 3, 2023: This article originally misstated that Kennedy delivered the “We have nothing to fear” speech. It was FDR.