Memo to Joe Biden, should you decide to enter the race. When it comes to big, flashing, electric smiles, you’ve now got some competition. Meet Julian Castro: formerly the mayor of San Antonio as well as a Housing and Urban Development secretary in Barack Obama’s administration. Is Castro really the second coming of Biden, however? I don’t think so. Easy laughter isn’t part of the package. And many of Castro’s smiles—no matter how joyous—contain a whiff of some additional emotion, too.
For starters, there are only two emotions where Castro stands out. He shows above average amounts of happiness (especially the strongest two flavors of it—sparkling-eyed joy, and minus that look the pleasure signaled by large grins). And the same is true of contempt. What does that combination of happiness and contempt suggest? In a word, it would be confidence. As for where the smirks emerge, look for the tension that appears along the left corner of Castro’s mouth in the photo on the left here, and next at how his upper lip raises and curls a bit in the photo to its right.
Now, joyful smirking is already a little odd. Tom Brady and Vladimir Putin both smirk when they smile, but rarely while offering a big, glowing smile. Happiness is about, in effect, hugging others and embracing opportunity. Contempt is laced with scorn and dismissal. Contempt could be thought of as the equivalent of strong-arming somebody trying to tackle you in a football game.
That fairly uneasy, even unnatural combination plays out in this next smile of Castro’s. The happiness is more subdued here, but again the upper lip flares with contempt (and disgust). Is there some chance that another side of Castro exists beyond being Mr. Sunshine? Could he be vaguely imperial, a little aloof, with some modicum of darkness creeping in after all?
I think that could be true, but we’ll have to wait and see how this all plays out on the campaign trail. For now, Castro is presenting himself as the Hispanic Obama, a quick learner who represents the next generation in an ever more multicultural society. Education is his big issue, something that helped propel him to Stanford and Harvard. And as for rising fast, well, his mother ran (unsuccessfully) for a seat on San Antonio’s City Council when she was 23, and he got there by the age of 26. If elected to the White House, Castro would become our country’s third youngest president ever.
Youth is at the heart of Castro’s sunshine appeal. His grandmother, orphaned by the Mexican Revolution, crossed the border at a young age. Relatives in San Antonio took in her and a sister. Castro has called his recently released autobiography An Unlikely Journey: Waking Up from My American Dream. Noting how details like his grandmother’s diabetes, depression and even a suicide attempt get passed over as quickly as his mother’s alcoholism and his parents’ separation, a reviewer in The New York Times characterized An Unlikely Journey as offering “little in the way of introspection.”
What exactly is Castro waking up from? Can he beat Donald Trump, as promised, by not making the error of trying to “out-gutter” him? Who knows for sure.
Castro’s expansive, frequent smijuliale limits evidence of sadness, anger and fear to levels well below what’s customary in the famous people I’ve analyzed over the years. So time will have to tell which version voters perceive. Might whatever is in the shadows of Castro’s personality fortify him, helping him demonstrate empathy and emotional depth? Or might everything except “sunshine” (happiness) get treated instead as merely a nuisance to be kept out of view (even from himself) as much as humanly possible?