Once upon a time, Richard Nixon went to Texas to visit Republican politicians. Mrs. Nixon arrived to join the group. Senator John Tower greeted Pat Nixon by kissing her on the cheek. Richard Nixon shook hands with her.
Every presidential marriage has its public style. Some marriages (like the Nixons') are more mysterious than others. The Clintons' marriage, of course, may be unfathomable.
There was a time when Bill and Hillary Clinton would come onto the South Lawn holding hands, as if they were Hansel and Gretel. Al and Tipper Gore would walk behind them, also holding hands. I have recently noticed that George W. Bush and his wife are major hand-holders as well.
Why exactly are these middle-aged men and women holding hands? Why this appearance of schoolchildren on a trip to the zoo? (Perhaps, now and then, that's what American politicians imagine themselves to be.)
In any case, before this presidential campaign turns really dirty, I thought there might be time to fit in a column on the subject of something sweet and wholesome political hand-holding.
Now, Clinton is a big hand-holder, and not just as a husbandly thing; on a visit to South Africa, he walked around at one point holding hands with Nelson Mandela.
The Reagans were sappy with each other; their loving public manifestations (fond glances, squeezes) represented public theater that had the additional virtue, as Henry Kissinger might say, of being true. But Jerry and Betty Ford, deeply devoted, avoided public displays of affection. Once, under the eyes of the cameras, the Fords' daughter, Susan, put her arm around her father; President Ford gently, unobtrusively, but almost squirmingly detached himself from her.
The pioneers in the presidential children-on-a-field-trip mode were Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter (also a devoted couple), whose stroll, hand in hand, down Pennsylvania Avenue after the inauguration in 1977 announced to the world the arrival of the anti-Nixon.
Style in these touches is not so much a matter of ideology as it is of temperament, of image-crafting instinct. The Trumans, say, or the Eisenhowers (let alone Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln) would not have held hands under the public gaze. Out of character. Besides, presidential wives in former days were required to recede, to stand by, fixedly (a role played until recently by Al Gore), and not, as today, to arrive in a hand-in-hand display of partnership. I would be happier about this progress if the current form of hand-holding did not seem lightly bogus, like that (to me) awkward moment in the Catholic mass when the priest instructs us to give one another "a sign of peace," whereat the atmosphere of prayer gets shattered for a handshake all around, a sort of Rotary meeting in the pews.
Maybe the difference is generational. If you were raised on the Gary Cooper model (a watchful mode, not always friendly), you feel that what is genuine and powerful remains unstated. You may (like Nixon) have an instinctive aversion to cute or overdone display. Baby boomers, on the other hand, may incline toward the overt and the tactile toward outward expression, with some sense that emotions, to be real, should be publicly shown.
Ugly campaigning is just a different form of outward display: It is not an accident that the first boomer-v.-boomer presidential election, this nasty sibling slugfest, should be exceptionally dirty. But look for a lot of Hansel and Gretel photo ops between rounds.