If a picture is worth a thousand words, can a picture be worth a thousand votes?

While not putting a number on it, aides to Rep. Robert Krueger, the Democratic opponent for the Senate seat of Republican Texans John Tower, see a windfall in Tower's recent refusal to shake hands with Krueger. Reocorded by a platoon of photographers, the photo shows Krueger extending his hand to the senator, who stays seated, glances disdainfully at the hand, then returns to the business of putting food into his mouth.

The main benefit to Krueger is that the handshake snub has given reporters across the country a reason to explain why Tower is so steamed at Krueger - mainly that Krueger's associates have circulated a newspaper column and imply that it portrays Tower as a whiskey-swilling womanizer.

Tower in turn, Krueger supporters contend, has cast aspersions on Krueger's lack of military service and has tried to imply something about Krueger's bachelorhood.

Tower says in defense his nonhandshake: "Where I come from a handshake is symbolic of friendship and respect - not a hypocritical display for public relations purposes."

That comment alone should engender large guffaws from anyone who has ever witnessed a Texans politician - or any other politician for that matter - move through a room. The political handshake has always been a display - hypocritical, or otherwise, but mostly hypocritical - for public relations purposes.Pressing the flesh is as indigenous to politics as the kiss-the-air and "dahling" routine of Hollywood.

No greater practitioner was there than that pride of the Pedernales, LBJ.In Texas, where the political handshake is an art of approaching that of branding a steer or striking oil or wrestling a rattlesnake (after first shaking hands with it). Lyndon Baines Johnson was the master of the two-pronged shake. Right hand on the other person's hand, left hand gripping the elbow, making it impossible to wrestle out of the greeting if you wanted to.

Johnson didn't just go for the elbow - he went for everything. Arm draped around the shoulder, other hand tugging the lapel, those squinty eyes looking down that bulbous nose as if sighting a prospect at the end of a rifle, head in close. It is for politicians such as LBJ and Russell Long - who some politician once remarked "invaded your airspace" - that Sensen was invented.

One time in the '50s LBJ, then minority leader, felt an urgent need to call upon President Dwight D. Eisenhower. The former supreme commander was used to being worshiped subordinates that the desk be and so, when the meeting was set up a Cabinet member in Ike's presence heard him muttering about "desk arrangements."

The puzzled official listened in amazement as the President instructed subordinates that the desk be placed in such a position that Johnson couldn't get near him and would have to settle for an arm's length handshake. "I don't want him pulling on my lapels and thumping my chest with his finger," said the president.

Ironically, when Johnson became president he practiced a few intriguing juxtapositions of his own. One politico recalls coming through for one of those photo opportunities in the White House where the President is snapped with several dignitaries. A very low table was placed about a foot and a half between the president and his guest. LBJ, so obsessed about his appearance that he would instruct aides to place podiums within one centimeter of his instructions, had the camera angle figured out just so in order to show him up to best advantage - and that low table served to keep it so. Then, the picture would be taken, cropped just above the table to look like a normal, causal greeting. A copy was usually sent by special delivery the next day, another LBJ special touch.

The Kennedys enjoyed the tumble of moving into crowds and shaking hands. Robert Kennedy lost cufflinks, had shirt sleeves ripped by mobs. John Kennedy used to have to soak his hands and put iodine on the scratches. Women, in not so subliminal sexual pursuit, used to actually claw him until they drew blood.

Henry Cabot Lodge had one of the most limp-fish handshakes and his aides used to try not to send him out among the crowds because of it. Nixon wasn't much good at it either. As a former aide said: "He tried to contrive himself a firm handshake."

Mark Sheilds, a political consultant who has moved into making campaign films, theorizes that "Democrats are natural handshakers. The Republicans don't like it because it's manual labor." (Shields handles only Democrats.)

Handshaking is such a necessary part of campaigning, like the rubber-chicken-and-wrinkled-peas banquet circuit, that it is the subject of much decision. "I never show the candidate shaking hands," says Sheilds. "I try to show his uniqueness. Now if I had a six-fingered candidate . . .."

And no one cares one scintilla about the handshake until something goes wrong. There isnot only the handshake but the hand gesture as well. Richard Nixon's arms raised above the head in two-harded V-for-victory salute provided comedians with an instantly recognizable joke.

In 1976, then-vice president Nelson Rockefeller, with a kind of abandon most politicians would envy, returned to a heckling crowd a one-finger gesture that needs no translation. Rockefeller nonchalantly kissed it off as an "unplanned reaction to a sustained salute I was getting" - which prompted political satirist Mark Russell's comment: "Being Nelson Rockefeller means never having to say you're sorry."

In a slightly oblique reference to such salutes, President Carter is now saying, possibly with the help of a speechwriter, "My esteem in the country has gone up substantially. It is very nice now that when people wave at me, they use all their fingers."

Wives of politicians, however unliberated, have always had always had full freedom to participate in the political handshake. Pat Nixon, unlike her husband, was a pro at moving people along in receiving lines, the constant moving centipede Mattel could have devised.

Liz Taylor Warner, who gave up the priveliged bodyguard protection of international film stars to mingle with the masses in Virginia, got into the act so eagerly that she broke some blood vessels in her hand.

Webster's describes "handshake" as a "clasping of right hands by two people (as in greeting o r farewell)." That's about as simple and nonpolitical as you can get. However, in one book on customs, the handshake - spread by westerners as a symbol of mutual goodwill - actually originated as a product of suspicion and distrust.

"A medieval villager who chanced to meet a man he didn't know reacted automatically by reaching for his dagger." The stranger usually did the same thing and the two were likely to spend a period cautiously circling one another with blades in hand. If both became satisfied that a fight to the finish was unnecessary, daggers were put back in sheaths laid on the ground. With his open hand extended to show that he did not hold a weapon, each man reached toward the other." (So much for you two, Krueger and Tower.)

The book "How It Started," concludes: "Evolving out of a desire to dispel fear, the handshake in Britain became what the kiss on each cheek is to the French and what the hearty rubbing of noses is to some South Sea Islanders."

Politicians, while trying to seem sincere, have a concern about mangled bones and so they try to devise genial, firm but nonbruising handshakes. There are two schools of thought on how this is done: One is that the fingers are grasped so that the other person cannot reach in and grab the palm. This must be done firmly, or all sorts of conjectures about your sexual proclivities are raised. The second theory is that you plunge your hand hard into the other person's, with your fingers landing up around the wrists, which also, if done correctly, staves off a knuckle-cruncher. If not, there are aides who can take you to emergency entrances of hospitals.

One man to be feared just for the size of his hands is Frank Nordy Hoffman, the Senate Sergeant-at-arms and former head of the Democratic senatorial campaign committee. His fingers look like other people's wrists.

Hoffmann agrees that he's had troubles with his ham-hock sized hands. "During World War II rationing I had to hide 'em. Meat was hard to get." But Hoffmann has an I've-Got-a-Secret sort of handshake story. He had the only handshake that led to the Football Hall of Fame.

As a college freshman, Hoffmann was walking across the Notre Dame campus with a friend when Knute Rockne approached. "Shaking hands with him was like shaking hands with God," Hoffman recalls. Rockne's response, after the handshake: "Are you out for football?" Hoffman, who have never played football (his high school was too small to even have a team), replied: "No." Rockne said: "With those hands, you should." Hoffmann went out for Notre Dame football. Next month he will be inducted into the Football Hall of Fame.

That anecdote, with apologies to Ronald Reagan and/or Knute Rockne and anyone who has managed to get to the end of this story, is titled "Win One for the Gripper."

Ouch. CAPTION: Picture, Sen. Tower eyes Rep. Kruger's hand, left, and returns to his meal; photo by AP; Illustration, no caption, Drawing by Donald Reilly; Copyright (c) 1965 The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.