Pressing the germy flesh
Searching for an alternative to the classic grip-and-grin
By Lance Morrow
November 1, 1999
Web posted at: 12:11 p.m. EST (1711 GMT)
At the White House on New Year's Day, 1907, Theodore Roosevelt
set a world record for shaking hands--8,150 of them, according
to his biographer Edmund Morris, including those of "every aide,
usher and policeman in sight." Having done his exuberant
political duty, says Morris, Teddy went upstairs and privately,
disgustedly, scrubbed himself clean.
We may presume that on Inauguration Day in January 2001,
President Trump will not try to break Roosevelt's record.
Trump's views are known: "I think the handshake is barbaric...
Shaking hands, you catch the flu, you catch this, you catch all
sorts of things."
The Donald may be right. The more you think about it, the more
disgusting the handshake becomes. Although it is a public
gesture, a reflexive ceremony of greeting, the handshake has a
clammy dimension of intimacy. The clamminess is illustrated in
principle by the following: a young enthusiast rushed up to
James Joyce and asked, "May I kiss the hand that wrote Ulysses?"
Joyce replied, "No. It did lots of other things too."
Most of us don't think about it. The handshake is expected and
is executed automatically in a ritual little babble of
nicetomeetyouhowdoyoudo? If you had an attack of fastidiousness
and refused to shake someone's extended hand, then the handshake
would become an awkwardness and an issue, a refusal being an
Now that he is almost a candidate, how is the fussy, hygienic
Donald to keep his sanity in an election year's orgies of
grip-and-grin? Mingling with the unwashed, he will presumably
shake tens of thousands of germy hands. The most graceful
substitute--the Hindu namaste (slight bow, hands clasped near
the heart as in prayer)--would not play well in American
politics. One alternative might be to shake your own hand,
brandishing the two-handed clutch in front of your face like a
champ while looking the voter in the eye. No. Too much
self-congratulation. A politician mustn't advertise his
Best not to think about it. Television has taken so much of the
physicality--the sheer touch--out of politics that we should
cherish the vestigial handshake, the last, fleeting, primitive
human contact, flesh to flesh, sweat to sweat, pulse to pulse. A
true politician loves shaking hands.
Study Bill Clinton working a rope line. Greedily, avidly, his
long, curiously angled fingers reach deep into the crowd to make
the touch, an image that in my mind has some cartoonist's
kinship to Michelangelo's Adam on the Sistine Chapel ceiling.
Lyndon Johnson pressed flesh with the same gluttonous
physicality, wading into the human surf, clawing and pawing into
the democratic mass with an appetite amazing, alarming.
On the receiving side, the handshake may be a form of souvenir
collecting. My father used to keep a framed photograph of
himself shaking hands with the young Richard Nixon, the two of
them beaming at each other; my father posted a little sign at
the bottom of the picture: COUNT YOUR FINGERS. Historical
continuities: Brooke Astor, now 97, remembers the day when, as a
little girl, she shook the hand of Henry Adams. I recall the day
when I was a child working for the summer as a Senate page and
the aged Herbert Hoover visited the Senate chamber, not a
celebrity so much as a curiosity. He looked like a Rotarian
Santa Claus. After the Senators and pages all shook his hand--a
dry hand, soft and bony at the same time, like grasping a small,
fragile bird--another page, overcome by his (rather forgiving)
sense of history, exclaimed, "I'm never going to wash my hand
If the social handshake has its anthropological origins in the
idea of primitive man showing he was not carrying a weapon, the
political handshake springs from long ago when a king's touch
might do magic and when the power of such connection seemed
infinitely more pertinent than the potential germs. To touch was
to partake somehow--maybe even through the germs--of the king's
magic. Surely voters will imagine that when they shake hands
with Donald Trump, gold will rub off. (Of course, bad magic may
also be communicated. Maybe the handshake with Herbert Hoover
many years ago explains why, from time to time, I am visited by
a great depression.)
If Trump were to think about it, he might be grateful that
contact with the electorate is not more intimate than it is.
Suppose it were customary for a politician to kiss not only an
occasional baby but also every voter in that mating-goose,
cocktail-party way? It could be even worse. Among some tribes in
the highlands of Papua New Guinea, men say hello by genially
clasping each other's genitals. Trump should be relieved he
won't have to work that kind of rope line.
MORE TIME STORIES:
Cover Date: November 8, 1999