Nelson Mandela's memorial service brought together world leaders of all political stripes, and unified Democratic and Republican politicians in remembrance of the South African leader. Nevertheless, members of the American media and Congress did their best to turn the memorial into a farce, spawning a ridiculous faux-controversy over the fact that President Obama shook hands with Cuban President Raul Castro.
The "handshake heard round Twitter" (not to be mistaken with the "selfie heard round Twitter") rankled some on the right who felt Obama should have spurned the Cuban leader for presiding over a communist country with a dubious human rights record.
Over at National Review, Mona Charen wrote that the handshake "makes the stomach turn" and that "the nature of the Cuban regime should be enough to cause our president to find some way to avoid a handshake."
"Shameful day to be an American," she added.
Meanwhile, Fox News spent a chunk of time discussing the handshake, with anchor Bill Hemmer saying an unnamed fellow journalist told him it "would not have been in the spirit of Mandela, it would have been disrespectful to the spirit of Mandela." (It should be noted that Mandela was not only a great conciliator, but a huge fan of the Castros.)
And here's Breitbart's John Nolte:
Obama enthusiastically shakes hand with dictator Castro and the media in unison screams NOTHING TO SEE HERE!!! Y'all are freakin' pathetic.— John Nolte (@NolteNC) December 10, 2013
Dishonest media's false choice: Be rude or shake hands with dictator. No. Obama could've been formal instead of visibly excited. Matters.— John Nolte (@NolteNC) December 10, 2013
On the congressional front, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) piled on, saying, "If [Obama] was going to shake his hand, he should have asked him about those basic freedoms Mandela was associated with that are denied in Cuba." And Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) made sure at least someone trotted out a Nazi reference.
"Neville Chamberlain shook hands with Hitler," he warned.
The outrage, of course, was predictable in the hyperpartisan atmosphere that dominates Washington.
That said, the idea that the president should avoid this most basic form of decorum is absurd. Presidents routinely shake hands with world leaders with whom they disagree. To wit, here's a sampling of pictures of Republican presidents doing just that.
That's because handshakes are a purely ceremonial act that don't in themselves represent official government policy. "Unlike in the case of, say, sanctions, handshakes are purely symbolic," wrote The New Republic's Isaac Chotiner, adding that "no American president, including Obama, will consistently shun unsavory world leaders."
The same goes for members of Congress. Consider McCain, who infamously tweeted about his pleasant experience meeting former Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi. In fairness to McCain, he didn't say anything about shaking Gadhafi's hand, so who knows, maybe he drew the line there.
Handshakes are a mere civility. But from all the outrage, you'd think Obama had sealed a deal to give Florida to Cuba.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- Russia is stealthily threatening America with nuclear war
- The science of sex: 4 harsh truths about dating and mating
- 13 Urban Outfitters controversies
- What political elites don't understand about Scotland's push for independence
- 6 things the happiest families all have in common
- 43 TV shows to watch in 2014
- Why gay people of color are still losing
- In defense of family dinner
- Is 'feminism' just another word for 'liberalism'?
- Do you need to be crazy to be the best?
Subscribe to the Week