The nominations of Condoleezza Rice for secretary of state and of Margaret Spellings as secretary of education were visually intriguing events, most notably because President Bush puckered up and gave both of them a congratulatory kiss. The president did not kiss Alberto Gonzales, his nominee for attorney general. He was congratulated with a strong handshake and the sort of torso tackle that men give each other in lieu of an actual hug.
The presidential smooches have been much discussed, which is not surprising. While it is common for politicians to hug and kiss indiscriminately on the campaign trail, it is another thing altogether to see the president planting his lips on potential -- or current -- members of his Cabinet.
As much as could be determined from the photo record, the president has never publicly kissed Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld or Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson. President Bush seems to reserve his pecks on the cheek for the ladies. Perhaps he will be kissing outgoing Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman goodbye?
The president kissed only Rice's right cheek, and in the case of Spellings, planted a single kiss just off-center of the lips. He did not execute the double buss that is used as a greeting throughout much of Europe, organized crime and the fashion industry. The double buss is not based on gender or age. In some ways it is a perfect greeting: intimate but not sexual, androgynous but warm. A man can use it to greet a male buddy, for instance. Women say hello to their girlfriends by bussing each cheek. Teenagers use the greeting among friends. As one might expect, there was nothing international about Bush's kisses.
His kisses were more substantial than the single air smooch favored by Hollywood and the Upper East Side of Manhattan. In the execution of this kiss, no direct contact is made between lips and cheek. Instead, two cheeks touch gently and if the lips pucker at all, it is for naught.
Bush delivered his kisses at announcements where gender distinctions were obvious but only vaguely suggested. He noted that the world will see this country's "grace" in Rice. It is a word that can mean decency and kindness, but it comes intertwined with connotations of physical beauty, elegance and femininity.
The president did not point out, however, that if Rice's nomination is confirmed by the Senate, she will be the first African American woman to be secretary of state. He did note that Spellings is a mother and that Rice is a classical pianist. One can assume that these details were relevant because they indicate that Spellings knows something about the moods and habits of children and that Rice has side interests that are somewhat more global than the president's affection for Brooks & Dunn and the clearing of brush from his ranch.
Both Rice and Spellings have been nominated for positions that previously were held by men. Secretary of State Colin Powell is known for his perfectly tailored suits that have the crisp creases and sharp collars worthy of a former military man. Rodney Paige, the secretary of education, has no sartorial distinctions. He is just another important guy -- in a city filled with important guys -- in a dark suit and glasses. There was no lip locking when Bush nominated them.
Rice accepted her nomination in a butter yellow suit with her distinctive halo of hair and its perfect, immovable, taunting flip. Spellings made her remarks dressed in a pale pink blazer and a pair of dark-rimmed glasses that made her look like the cool English teacher who would assign her students "Moby Dick" but confess that she knew it was boring.
In some ways, the president was in a difficult situation. He has known both women for a long time. A firm, congratulatory handshake does not seem particularly warm and embracing. And yet, he couldn't exactly grab them by the shoulders and slap them heartily on the back -- as if they were men.
Bush did not try to pretend that these were simply two more nominations. After all, he talked up Rice's childhood in racially torn Alabama. He made his point that her nomination was historic. He made his point that this was another step in women's progress. But with two single kisses, he also made it clear that for him, equal doesn't mean the same.