Try to picture this scene: It’s Sept. 17, 1787, and the delegates are gathered inside the state house at Philadelphia. Alexander Hamilton strides up to the dais, where the Constitution lies on a table, and solemnly puts quill to parchment. Then he turns to George Washington, who flashes a toothy grin and pulls him in for a celebratory bear hug.
Hard to imagine?
Obviously, we’ve traveled a long way from the manners and mores of the 18th century, but when exactly did the public political embrace make the switch from unthinkable to de rigueur?
A 1984 Washington Post piece places the blame on the 1970s: “The abrazo . . . attained official status when taken up by Jimmy Carter, Kissinger, Begin, and particularly Sadat, who is alleged to have started it in the head-of-state business.” Actually, Khrushchev was cuddling with fellow Communist strongmen long before Begin and Sadat made peace. A photograph taken in 1960 captured the Soviet leader grinning delightedly while nestling up against Castro’s beard during a meeting at the United Nations.
But the hug as a greeting or expression of affection between unrelated grown men never authentically belonged to America the way it did to Russian, Latin, and Mediterranean cultures. It only insinuated itself into our political life in the latter half of the 20th century, thanks to two related cultural developments: the increasing casualness of dress and manners, and the growing need of politicians to project a caring and warm persona to the electorate. Jimmy Carter, with his beige cardigan and folksy fireside chats, perfectly embodied both trends, so it’s no surprise that he became our first real embracer-in-chief. His reach was long, encompassing members of his staff, supporters, Willie Nelson, Tip O’Neill, Leonid Brezhnev, survivors of the Iranian hostage crisis, and, of course, Begin and Sadat. More recently, Carter made headlines for hugging it out with a senior member of Hamas.
There were noteworthy pre-Carter presidential hugs, too, the most famous of which was Sammy Davis Jr.’s suddenly seizing Nixon from behind during the 1972 Republican National Convention. But the incident was, to put it mildly, out of character for Nixon.
Hugs came more naturally to Lyndon Johnson, though he deployed them tactically. His philosophy was to “hug your friends tight, but your enemies tighter — hug ’em so tight they can’t wiggle.” In Master of the Senate, Robert Caro describes Johnson in action in the Senate chamber: “Another colleague would enter. Jumping up, Johnson would hug him . . . his hands never seemed to stop moving, patting a senatorial shoulder, grasping a senatorial lapel, jabbing a senatorial chest — jabbing it harder and harder if the point was still not being taken — and then hugging the senator when it was.” But Johnson was still capable of being discomfited by public displays of affection — as when a Pakistani camel driver whom he had invited to the United States while vice president returned his handshake with a vigorous hug.
Ronald Reagan wasn’t much of a hugger. Nancy tended to handle it on the domestic front. Internationally, he managed to sidestep the Soviet bear hug until the INF treaty was successfully negotiated and entered into force in 1988, at which point he and Gorbachev sealed it with an embrace.
In 1984, there were two politicians who pointedly declined to hug, at least each other: Walter Mondale and his running mate, Geraldine Ferraro. “At their appearances, Mr. Mondale and Mrs. Ferraro have merely stood next to each other and waved with one arm, avoiding the ‘hug-wave’ mode,” reported Maureen Dowd. It was not until they were soundly defeated in a landslide election that they indulged in a public consolation hug.
It’s safe to say that hugging did not attain its present level of ubiquity until Bill Clinton thrust it into the center of American politics. He gripped the entire nation in his vise until we felt how much he felt our pain. Clinton being Clinton, he also managed to corrupt the hug, turning it from an innocent if often phony gesture into a symbol of his grasping lecherousness and the subject of federal grand-jury testimony.
It wasn’t until compassionate conservatism arrived on the scene with George W. Bush that the Republican hug came into its own. Bush’s hugs track the major events of his presidency, along with his waxing and waning political fortunes. After 9/11, he stood on the ashes of the Twin Towers and gripped a New York fireman with one arm, while he held a bullhorn to his lips with the other. During the 2004 campaign, Democratic senator Tom Daschle, running for reelection, riled Republicans by running an ad showing himself sharing a national-unity embrace with Bush, in the hopes that South Dakota voters would take it as an endorsement.
By 2006, such ads cut the other way: Iraq and Katrina had made Bush’s touch toxic. Sen. Joe Lieberman, the recipient of an alleged kiss on the cheek (Lieberman recalled it as only a hug, though video suggested otherwise) at Bush’s 2005 State of the Union address, found himself besieged by a Democratic primary challenger whose campaign centered on “the kiss” and the backing of Bush’s Iraq policy that it symbolized. It was enough to part Lieberman from his party affiliation, but not from his Senate seat. By contrast, Charlie Crist’s infamous embrace of Obama — and of his stimulus package — cost the former Florida governor both. The difference between the gestures, and the men involved, was one of sincerity: Bush was expressing genuine appreciation for Lieberman’s principled support; Obama was offering a pro forma greeting in exchange for Crist’s (then) politically expedient position.
When not being used as ammunition in political campaigns, Obama’s hugs have generally garnered little attention, especially compared to his innovative bows to foreign leaders. But there have been occasional bursts of controversy. The “collegiate squeeze” the president shared with Rahm Emanuel at the end of the press conference marking his aide’s departure led Larry Kudlow to deplore an unseemly manifestation of “fraternity-like emotionalism” and “weakness.” And Michelle Obama’s one-armed caress of the Queen of England struck some critics as a shocking breach of protocol, though a Buckingham Palace spokesman rushed to clarify that the incident was a “mutual and spontaneous display of affection.”
If even Queen Elizabeth has taken to spontaneous displays of public affection, there is not much hope that American politicians will cease their affected displays of public posturing. The hug is here to stay.
— Katherine Connell is National Review’s research director.