Bush the Embracer

(Pool Photo By K.C. Alfred)
By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 27, 2007

The wildfires in Southern California this week have served to remind the world once more about one of the singular and underappreciated skills of George W. Bush: The man is a generous hugger.

There he was, amid the charred remains of some formerly upscale neighborhood, embracing the weary and the dazed victims of the fire. He made a little speech as one of the unfortunate locals was snuggled up to his side, his arm clinching her close. The gesture suggested strength, solidarity, compassion. The resident looked almost reassured.

Long after his presidency is history, some of the most memorable images of Bush's years in office will involve hugs. Flip through the mental photo album: Bush, standing on that legendary rubble pile on Sept. 14, 2001, one arm vise-clamping a firefighter, the other gripping a bullhorn; Bush, in New Orleans and Mississippi, handing out embraces like the Red Cross hands out relief supplies; Bush, at Virginia Tech, hugging the relatives of 32 murdered students.

For a president who doesn't necessarily come across as a touchy-feely guy, he sure does touch a lot. In just the past six months, according to a database search, he has hugged hundreds of people in public: the families of dead firefighters and police officers; the parents of a posthumous Medal of Honor winner; workers at a Nashville bread company; the mayor of Huntsville, Ala.; the jockey who rode the winning horse at the Kentucky Derby; the survivors of a Kansas tornado; departing political mastermind Karl Rove; press secretary Dana Perino. He touches nobodies and world leaders alike.

Like most everything the president does, Bush's hugs come fraught with symbolic meaning. Photos and video of him embracing (or being embraced by; it's not entirely clear) then-Democratic Sen. Joseph Lieberman (Conn.) and Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) became fodder for Daschle and Lieberman's political opponents. Bush's embrace of an Ohio teenager whose mother had died in the 9/11 attacks became the centerpiece of an emotional campaign ad (funded by a conservative group) in October 2004.

Who hugged this often, this freely, this (seemingly) sincerely while in the White House? Bill Clinton was certainly a copious hugger, but his public displays of affection will forever be overshadowed by a single hug -- that tape-loop of his embrace of Monica Lewinsky at a rally. Richard Nixon's two most famous hugs -- his awkward semi-grapple with Sammy Davis Jr. and his iconic embrace of his wife, Pat, on the day of his resignation -- were the stuff not of uplift but of comedy and tragedy.

Bush the Elder? Yes, Dad could hug it out, but he did so stiffly and tentatively, as if he were still mastering a strange new custom. Did Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan hug? They may have, but not so you'd remember. LBJ could hug with menace. Ford and Kennedy? Eisenhower? No. And no way.

Journalistic skepticism compels us to note that presidential hugs usually are photo ops, staged for the cameras and calculated to deliver the prepackaged sentiment, as Bush 41 once put it, "Message: I care." But the visual evidence also compels us to remark that Bush 43's hugs are among the least stage-y of his mannerisms. There's an athletic, energetic, almost muscular quality to them. They seem, in a word, genuine.

This is something that many men -- at least many men of Bush's background and generation -- have long found difficult. Hugging, particularly hugging another man, is the kind of casual yet intimate PDA that such men shy from. It's acceptable with family members, and on formal occasions, like weddings and funerals, or if you've just won the Super Bowl. But let's not push it.

To these men, hugging suggests an excessive degree of emotion and physical intimacy, both of which violate the macho code (admittedly, this code" varies among different groups). The complicated male attitude toward hugging was once perfectly distilled by another Texan, the animated Hank Hill on "King of the Hill." Overjoyed by something his often-disappointing son has done, the uptight Hank exclaims, "Bobby, if you weren't my son, I'd hug you."

As Hugger in Chief, of course, Bush enjoys the advantage of power and privilege. As a rule, says David Givens, who runs the Spokane, Wash.-based Center for Nonverbal Studies, people of "higher status" can touch others without consequence, but the reverse is not true. Touch, he says, is of particular value to an unpopular president such as Bush. "A lot of people mistrust his words," Givens says, "but it's hard to fake the meaning of a handshake or an embrace. It's more trustworthy. [Touch] is an ancient form of communication that goes back further than words."

Not all presidential hugs, however, are created equal. Natural disasters lend themselves to the comforting embrace, but not so the battlefield or military cemetery. Bush, like other modern wartime presidents, is less frequently photographed hugging wounded troops or their bereaved.

Perhaps that's considered too intimate an image for public consumption. Or perhaps it's simply too far off-message for any White House, raising uncomfortable questions about cause and effect.

In other words, for even as compulsive a hugger as George Bush, there may be some things any president would rather not embrace.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company