Political displays of affection

Is John McCain's habit of hugging running mate Sarah Palin a condescending tic? Or just a way of showing they're a team?

Published September 9, 2008 5:10PM (EDT)

Among the odder side stories stirred up by John McCain and Sarah Palin is a piece in Tuesday's New York Times about the etiquette of political hugs.

Instead of greeting his running mate with a handshake, McCain welcomes Palin to their campaign events with a brief embrace. (And a chaste one at that -- perhaps he learned his lesson from that unfortunate picture of him nuzzling George W. Bush.) The New York Times, noting that he now makes sure to kiss his wife first (nobody puts Cindy in a corner), asked various social etiquette experts what to make of this on-the-trail affection.

"He's hugging her to show the world that he's all for her, and protecting her, but she doesn't need that," said Letitia Baldrige, former White House social secretary to Jacqueline Kennedy. (Baldrige later conceded that in an age when "we accept anything," the embrace was OK.)

"It's a form of professional endearment," Ann Marie Sabath, the founder of a business etiquette training firm, told the Times. "Getting closer than two arms' length when you know the other person says, 'I respect you, we have a comfort level, we have a professional bond.'"

Christine Todd Whitman had perhaps the best quote, though, admitting that she has given "lots of hugs and kisses" to her male peers, "depending on the governor."

Lest we forget, male politicians have long shown affection to one another on the campaign trail -- see this photo and this video (for some reason, I couldn't come up with any Cheney-Bush embraces). But in 1984, the only other time that America had a male-female presidential ticket, Walter Mondale had a strict "hands-off" policy with his running mate, Geraldine Ferraro. ("People were afraid it would look like, 'Oh my God, they're dating,'" Ferraro told the Times.)

So what do you make of the McCain-Palin love? A sign of things changing for the better (equal embraces for all)? A slightly condescending tic, akin to Obama's habit of calling women "sweetie"? A total nonissue? (Well, it's obviously that -- but there are only so many articles to write about Palin before she sits down with Charlie Gibson.) Tell us your thoughts -- and, if you're really procrastinating, let's have a little contest while we're at it: In the letters thread, post links to the best political embraces you can find. Extra points for kisses.

By Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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