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A history of political handshakes

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The informal handshake yesterday, December 10, 2013 between U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela caused a stir in some political circles and media outlets. While the Obama-Castro handshake was merely a social nicety that mirrored the exchange between many world leaders at the Mandela event, there have been other famous political handshakes over the past decades, some of which were fraught with more meaning:

1959: Richard Nixon and Fidel Castro

Then-Vice President Richard Nixon met and shook hands with Raul Castro’s brother, Cuban President Fidel Castro, at a Washington, D.C. press reception in April 1959, four months after Castro led a revolution to overthrow Cuba’s government.

1983: Donald Rumsfeld and Saddam Hussein

In December 1983, U.S. President Ronald Reagan dispatched Donald Rumsfeld as a special envoy to the Middle East. Rumsfeld was sent to Iraq and shook the hand of Iraq’s President Saddam Hussein, even though the U.S. government had concluded that Iraq had used chemical weapons. By 1991, the U.S. declared Saddam Hussein a dangerous enemy, and attacked Iraq in First Gulf War. A little over a decade later, Rumsfeld was the Secretary of Defense as the U.S. attacked Iraq again in the Second Gulf War.

2005: George W. Bush and Saudi Prince Abdullah

In 2005, U.S. President George W. Bush got quite cozy with Crown Prince (now King) Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, holding hands and kissing. This was four years after the attacks of September 11, 2001, where 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi citizens.

2009: John McCain and Muammar Gaddafi

In August 2009, U.S. Senator John McCain shook hands with Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi as part of a U.S. delegation, to talk about supplying Gaddafi with military aid. However, a year earlier, Gaddafi accepted responsibility for the Lockerbie airplane terrorist bombing, and within a year after McCain’s handshake with Gaddafi, McCain was hammering his Senate primary rival, J.D. Hayworth, over Libya, saying that Gaddafi had “American blood on his hands.”

Last but not least, there’s this famous December 1970 meeting and handshake between President Richard Nixon and Elvis Presley. Elvis wanted to help Nixon fight the precursor to the War on Drugs. Seven years later, unfortunately, Presley was found dead at age 42, after years of drug abuse.

Strange bedfellows, indeed.

© 2013 Matthew Emmer -- All Rights Reserved

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