What We Talk About When We Talk About Presidential Handshakes

Nixon was a master. LBJ, less so. Then there’s ol’ Donny Boy.

February 16, 2017 9:00 am

The handshake is having a moment.

Same time, you could say that it’s never stopped having a moment since the first Athenian senator sold a boat on Thracian Craigslist back in the hinterlands of history.

Besides the funeral, no single ceremony has defined and dogged mankind like the nuanced ritual of two dudes at cross-purposes holding hands long enough to not stab each other. Which is to say: Whether we’re talking a display of mutual respect or a diplomatic stumble, at no point are we talking about a thing we don’t fundamentally understand.

Image: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

And what we talk about when we talk about handshakes drifts quickly from technique to the broader examination of what any given handshake means: What can we learn about any pair of hands — tiny or otherwise — and the all-too-human actors from which they extend?

So let’s get technique out of the way real quick:

  • Don’t close your mitt until the webbings of your thumbs connect.
  • Grasp like a cowboy catching an egg; adjust to match your partner.
  • Two pumps and release.

You knew all that. Any deviations from that blueprint, though, and the rubber meets the road. Some such deviations are simple to reconcile. Uncle stuff? I’m not falling for that this time, Rick. Single pump of two-pump length? Nice flourish, Steve.

Tugging? No, Don.

Image: Ethan Miller/Getty Images


Not to say power moves don’t have their place. In fact, let’s call the good ones by their proper moniker: Presidential. The Presidential comes in three flavors, and you’re bound to awe or be awed by one at some point in your career, whether you’re the Mayor of Circleville or the CEO of Central Ohio Bank and Trust. Each involves the initiator’s left hand.

  • Clasp the back of the hand being shook: This is not a pitty-pat, “look at you!” hand tap. It’s a secondary grasp that comes slightly after the shake begins and releases shortly before it ends. It’s a warm statement of respect.
  • Clasp the forearm attached to the hand being shook: This baby’s a serious upgrade. Use it sparingly.
  • Clasp the elbow attached to the forearm attached to the hand being shook: Respect. Save this one for matters of state and court.

The common theme for each of these bad boys is they enhance the statement: “We may not agree about everything, but we’ve reached an accord based on mutual respect. I value that.”

A handshake isn’t a battle of wits. It should come as naturally as saying your name — fitting, since the two actions tend to walk hand in hand. But with great power comes great responsibility for photo-ops, and this is where the wheels tend to fall off the earlier rubber-meeting-the-road metaphor.

From its earliest conjectured days as a ritual between fighting men of the Greek armies, the handshake has been a signifier of open hands without murder tools. Terse. Meaningful. The advent of photography and subsequently video has led to prolonged periods of powerful men feeling icky about squeezing sweaty palms. Most such powerful men — U.S. presidents, for instance — have handled it with aplomb.

Image: National Archive/Newsmakers

Seriously, they made a whole movie about how unlikely this handshake was. But here’s Nixon doing Nixon, Elvis doing Elvis, and nary a joke to be made beyond the unlikelihood of it all. Real talk: Nixon was a handshake boss.

Image: AFP/Getty Images

There have been gaffes, of course, but frankly, bad presidential handshakes are sort of hard to find. Good handshakes are to world leaders what the 90 MPH fastball is to a Major League pitcher: bedrock. Lack one, and you may not be long for the limelight.

Here’s a great one between Pope Francis and Obama, for instance.

Image: Olivier Douliery/Pool/Getty Images

Good luck finding a bad handshake between any sitting president and any living pope.

One thing is certain: given an alternate history of LBJ presiding over a 24-hour news nation, there would be plenty of uncomfortable clips involving overplayed hands.

But even then, we’d have redemptive examples.

Image: AFP/Getty Images

Bringing your narrator nearer to the simple point that while no single handshake can define a man, every living second of a handshake speaks volumes of a man’s values.

Wherever your grip lands, take heart. Whether it’s for posterity or the moment, between world leaders or interstate managers, a good handshake isn’t about dominance or showmanship. It’s an expression of character. Take it from my man FDR’s perfect execution from the backseat.

Image: Edward H. Gooch/Keystone/Getty Images

No magic in that connection, but damn.

Photo credits:
Header: Kevin Dietsch/Pool/Getty Images

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