(HOST) With President Obama embarking on a major European tour, commentator Bill Seamans has been thinking about the fine diplomatic art of meeting and greeting.
(SEAMANS) This week President Barack Obama launches an eight day, five nation journey to attack what he calls "the inherited challenges" he faces in Europe – translated into people-speak, that means Obama will begin his campaign to repair the American image overseas allegedly damaged by his predecessor. Adding to his diplomatic burden is the weight of the personal rapport that Obama establishes with the leaders of so many cultural backgrounds – and how he greets them is an important White House protocol question – when greeting the Arab officials should he kiss them on the cheek according to their custom – after all, President Bush held hands with King Abdullah. Should he greet the Slavs with their machismo bear hug – but crushed ribs are not good for basketball. Or will Obama retain the all-American handshake – perhaps offer a High Five or maybe even the Knuckle Knock used by Michelle when she greets him?
I think that President Obama should play it safe and stick to the familiar handshake so as not to accidentally offend any sensitivities. That thought drove me back to my dusty notes for some interesting history once provided by a diligent local public librarian when I asked her, "Just what is this thing called a handshake?"
I learned that the oldest recorded use of the handshake goes back to those drawings of hands on the walls of ancient Egypt that were said to signify the conferring of power from a god on an earthly ruler. Michelangelo depicted this view of the handshake on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Then later-on the right hand, or weapon hand, was extended as a token of good will by showing that it was not reaching for a dagger or sword. This is offered as the reason why women, who throughout history usually did not bear arms, never developed the custom of the handshake – relying perhaps on other weapons.
Then in the Orient, where China holds most of our Treasury I.O.U.’s, for centuries the people have shown good intentions by joining both their hands in front of them away from weapons – which removed the worry about left-handers.
Now enters the ubiquitous cynic who thinks that even an ordinary handshake might offend some foreigners because they believe that "pressing the flesh" in Washington has become the symbol of a promise never intended to be kept. So what is President Obama to do to stimulate goodwill – a pat on the shoulder? The warm elbow grip? No… Not enough… Obama cannot escape the traditional "grip-and-grin" publicity snapshots with various leaders which they can use as their "I personally met Obama" boost for their political stature back home – even though some might look as warm and sincere as a shotgun photo-op.