Published July 29, 2014
Are you a back slapper?
I ask because I think most politicians are. The president slaps everybody’s back. Even Rick Perry’s, and I don’t think the Texas governor is a fan. Then again, Perry slaps others’ backs too, including those of Democrats, and for all I know, the president’s.
Politicians tell me slapping another guy’s back doesn’t mean you back him, you’re just kind of in the moment at one with him, especially when that moment is special. Take perhaps the most famous back-slapping incident in recent memory – that of President Obama and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie elevating this unique political ritual way beyond anything we had ever seen, after Hurricane Sandy. They not patted, they hugged. The embrace was said to represent a moment of bipartisan bonding after a horrific event. Some conservatives weren’t quite so emotionally smitten, convinced the back-slapping and hugging helped send Former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s prospects torpedoing.
It’s hard to say. This much is not. Back-slapping is ingrained in our political culture, and woe to the politician on either side who doesn’t embrace its effective power. Embrace the embrace, if you will, or you will not survive long! Historian Jane Hampton Cook says it’s part of being a gregarious politician. By definition, those who seek office must be people persons, even if they’re not. So I guess what Cook is saying is it’s in politicians’ DNA to slap other people’s backs, even if only minutes before they were kicking the other guy in the ass!
It’s why the Republican House Speaker John Boehner is civil when the president comes to deliver an address in his chamber, and why the president is equally civil when the speaker comes to visit him at the White House. At least when cameras spray the room, you won’t hear either side spraying epitaphs at the other – again, not on camera anyway.
But back to this whole back-slapping thing. Do you do it? Do you know others who do it? Do you feel better about a boss who embraces you that way, or he of you if you treat him the same way? And what if the boss is a woman doing so to a man, or the subordinate is a man, doing so to a woman? It gets tricky, doesn’t it? Much depends on where you’re slapping, I suspect, but not the art – and power – of the slap itself. Such physical connections imply something grander than a mere meeting of minds. Think playing a round of golf, and concluding telling the other fellow, “nice shot,” doesn’t suffice. For two opposing politicians, it can represent a subliminal mutual respect for one another’s positions. Or it could be a nervous reaction, and each fears looking emotionally constipated if they don’t embrace.
Either way, it’s more common than not to slap your opponent’s back before you start slapping him or her around in a debate, and doing so again, after you’ve beaten each other’s brains out in that debate. But was that always the case? From everything I have read, Abraham Lincoln was oddly not a touch-feely leader. He personally lamented so many soldiers’ losses, but he kept his own family’s woes and tragedies so buttoned up that colleagues at the time often referred to his surreal distance – even put-offish, downright moody disposition. Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin explained Lincoln showed his respect for building his “team of rivals” by not playing silly political physical stunts, trying to needlessly embrace his rivals.
Not so Lyndon Johnson, for whom back-slapping was developed into modern-day political art form. Oddly enough, a notoriously-introverted Richard Nixon – more fond of walking alone on the beach in full suit and tie – was garrulous in public when it came to “the hug.” Many years earlier, his supposedly much more extroverted Democratic opponent John Kennedy, avoided body contact (at least with other men), as he did hats! He shook hands, but he didn’t slap backs.
In the corporate world, Steve Jobs was brilliant but not a back slapper. General Electric’s Jack Welch was brilliant and a back slapper. So, once again, no accounting for consistency. Much depends on the leader’s comfort level, or more often, discomfort level. Some use back-slapping to compensate for their own social awkwardness. Plus, properly utilized, it can put the other guy, or again “gal” (how’s that for political correctness), on defense.
A slap on the back, just as a hug before the media, relays a certain, “I’m above petty politics” approach to matters. It shows those in the room and those watching on camera, that the one initiating the slap isn’t interested in being small, just lovingly large. Not a trivial, vindictive egotist, but a larger-than-life lover. Psychologists say that’s because in this attention-starved age in which we live, those who seem warm, tend to be warmly received by folks looking for warmth themselves – go analyze that one!
Yet ironically, Ronald Reagan, who was perhaps this past century’s most natural of politicians, had a natural reservation to getting too close to people. He kept his friends close, and visitors to his inner sanctum rare. He was warm, but at a distance. So too Donald Trump, one of the more in-your-face chief executives ever, but reportedly a real germaphobe to the point he’d do anything to avoid shaking your hand. Slap your back “maybe” – but short of a fist-bump, no more.
By now, you’re wondering why I’m so fixated on something so trivial. Well, it’s because I think much can be read from a physical gesture we might otherwise dismiss, and for whom we can otherwise discern much. Word is Hillary Clinton on the stump is distant. But word also is that she’s loaded up on Purell for the campaign ahead…just in case.