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The Handshake: What Does It Represent?

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It may sound silly for a politician’s daughter to say this, but handshaking has always left me a little nervous.  Maybe it’s because there was so much handshaking going on before I was old enough to join in, maybe my gender makes the handshake question a bit more confusing, who knows.  In a political event, the handshakes come easy. They represent a chance to thank those who took the time to come and show their interest and support.  It’s the social situations that confuse me.  When I greet people, I often wonder, should I shake, hug, air kiss or simply say “hi?” 


Most times, what I do is determined by several variables; the person I am greeting, our relationship and the environment.  In business meetings, handshakes are most common.  When greeting friends I have known forever, hugs rule the day.  When seeing people at cocktail parties, it’s definitely air-kiss time.  When running past other mothers who, like me, are on the go, a simple “hi” is often the best that we can do.

My ongoing conundrum with this apparently silly question made more sense to me after reading Rick Beyer’s book, “The Greatest Presidential Stories Never Told,” (Collins, New York 2007).  According to Beyer, President Jefferson’s passion for equality led him to “introduce the practice of treating every guest the same way, regardless of social standing.”  Jefferson began shaking hands in the White House on July 4, 1801 at a reception - scandalous.

According to Beyer, both Presidents Washington and Adams followed the custom of greeting guests with a formal bow.  Jefferson, so consumed with equality that he used only round tables for dining, “set an example for all presidents to follow.”  In an era of kings and queens, the simple handshake implied that the two people meeting were equal and established a physical connection.

Handshake styles of the current crop of presidential candidates are highlighted by Mark Leibovich in his May 24, 2008, New York Times article, “Where to Catch the Sights, Sound and Smell of a Campaign.”  While I have never participated in a national campaign, I can imagine the unending BBQ chicken, photo opportunities and rope lines.


Leibovich notes that, “while campaign events are largely stage-crafted, the frenzied flesh-pressing that candidates engage in afterward offers something more raw and unpredictable. …. rope-line encounters offer bits of drive-by intimacy amid the production.”

That’s what campaigning is all about to me, the chance for voters to meet candidates, to look them in the eye, to decide if they really care and to determine their measure as a man (or as a woman.)  Of course, this possibly antiquated vision of politics was formed during the early 1970s, when I drove Georgia’s rural 6th district with my dad, stopping at every gas station to meet and shake the hand of the person who ran it. 

Our handshaking activities included going to the Ford factory in Atlanta during the 5 a.m. shift change after having lost the election the night before to shake the hands of those who had (or had not) supported my father.  I can even remember telling an audience during a roast of my dad that one of my adolescent wishes had been for our family to go into a Chick-Fil-A without my father greeting everyone behind the counter with a handshake and a “Glad to meet you, I’m Newt Gingrich,” (I never was asked to roast him again.)  

Running for office is often thought of as a complex strategy involving advertising buys and Web site hits, but in the end it’s about individuals making personal decisions about who they think will best lead our nation.


“You can learn a lot about the state of a campaign from its rope lines, and about the style of the person running,” notes Leibovich.  “There is a giddy celebrity vibe on the Obama rope lines, with the candidate darting along…. he is a finger-pincher, spreading memories in half-second increments — about 20 voter touches per 30 seconds, on average.

“Mrs. Clinton lingers, chats and signs her first name… Her supporters cling to her and urge her not to quit….

“Mr. McCain invites respectful distance…his war injuries make it difficult for him to extend his arms. He moves in close, making earnest eye contact while shaking hands. His approach is dutiful, like a Boy Scout mowing a lawn.”

While Leibovich focused on the “rope-liners themselves, with arms and fingers extended, their eyes bugged and sometimes tearful,” rather than the candidates.  It is the candidates that are more interesting to me.

“Mr. Obama is at best lukewarm to rope lines, his aides say, but he has learned to soldier through them…his chief primary opponent, Mrs. Clinton, is a rope-lining dynamo,” according to Leibovich, while as noted earlier, McCain’s approach is similar to a boyscout mowing a lawn.

President Ford, when talking to journalist Tom DeFrank, contrasted Bill Clinton’s love of in-person engagement with that of John F. Kennedy. “John was great, but all John had was the press.” Mr. Ford said. “He was still and elitist. He didn’t like the rope line.”


Maybe it doesn’t matter if the candidate likes the rope lines; it’s whether the rope lines like the candidate.  But we all know it’s hard to like those who don’t like us, and the candidates might want to keep that in mind.


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