EACH TELEVISED arrival or departure of a head of state these days seems to involve a series of ritualized public embraces. The standard handshake (with optional grasping of forearm) has turned into the clinch. The signing ceremony after Camp David was a preview, and the Carter visit to the Middle East act two; if there now is a peace treaty signing, it should be the World Series of abrazos .
Webster defines the abrozo as a form of salutation employed in Latin America. It is also common in parts of the Arab world, and Sadat does it with ease. It is part of his culture. As a sabra, it also seems to come more naturally to a man like Ezer Weizman. But Begin is another story. is another story.
I would guess that peace in the Middle East might be easier to achieve if Begin can be given a guarantee that he will not have to kiss Sadat's of Carter's or anybody's cheek ever again. The new Polish pope, to the obvious embarrassment of some of the recipients, embraced each and every cardinal in the obeisance portion of his inaugural. But Begin is a Pole from the other side of Warsaw.
Hugging and embracing with optional kisses of cheek between men is a sign of esteem and friendship long practiced in Arab and Mediterranean cultures. Even the glacial Charles de Gaulle could deliver the obligatory kiss on each cheek. But most northern Europeans don't seem to be into it. Princess Anne of England was recently criticized on a trip to Norway for refusing to kiss or even accept the embrace of a small child.
In America, at least when I was growing up in the Bronx during World War II, men did not normally embrace other men. They didn't even publicly kiss women who were not members of their immediate family. Certain theatrical types might kiss a woman upon meeting, and it was always considered sweet and sisterly for two women to embrace. But not two men.
During the 1960s, with the general breakdown in taboos on appropriate public behavior, it became somewhat more common for two men to embrace in public. But it was not the norm. In Hollywood and among theater people in New York, on the other hand, it became a sign of stiff formality to simply shake hands. A New York friend of mine who went to California to become a successful screenwriter would do the abrazo every time I saw him. I would extend my hand, and it turned into a hug. An exception to the Hollywood rule is Johnny Carson, who kisses only women guests and, occasionally, George Burns.
I would venture that Jimmy Carter and Menachem Begin can agree on the thing: They would prefer to do without the abrazos . The now de rigueur embrace is something they have had to deal with because Sadat started it. Henry Kissinger, who is not your natural for hugging, was initiated into the abrazo by Sadat. Although in Carter's Georgia kissing women is just fine, I doubt if he and Charles Kirbo or Ham Jordan or Griffin Bell do much embracing. And Cyrus Vance did not go in for it in a big way at his Wall Street law firm.
Once reserved for true expressions of deep and abiding friendship, the abrazo has undergone a Gresham's law devaluation. Symbols of courtesy and esteem in human interaction are few enough that they ought not to be trifled with. The basic handshake is a custom of only a few hundred years' duration, said to have originated to demonstrate the absence of a weapon. Now that the abrozo is the norm on certain public stages, it will be widely imitated by those who want to be sure to do the right thing. And there goes the neighborhood.