The Post’s snark on Bush’s hugs

bush huggingWe’ve established that The Washington Post Style section likes to be snarky. In the Post‘s effort to cover substantive news and issues, the snark will often get in the way. It’s almost like they’re trying to entertain us, rather then inform us. Since when does an important, serious, American news organization behave that way? Oh wait, never mind.

Most recently, Style writer Paul Farhi, observed that President Bush likes to embrace people and doesn’t mind reporters photographing him doing it. Fahri covers a nice range of issues (hugging was first mentioned by The Economist in July 2006), but the snark permeates the piece:

The wildfires in Southern California this week have served to remind the world once more about one of the singular and underappreciated skills of George W. Bush: The man is a generous hugger.

There he was, amid the charred remains of some formerly upscale neighborhood, embracing the weary and the dazed victims of the fire. He made a little speech as one of the unfortunate locals was snuggled up to his side, his arm clinching her close. The gesture suggested strength, solidarity, compassion. The resident looked almost reassured.

Long after his presidency is history, some of the most memorable images of Bush’s years in office will involve hugs. Flip through the mental photo album: Bush, standing on that legendary rubble pile on Sept. 14, 2001, one arm vise-clamping a firefighter, the other gripping a bullhorn; Bush, in New Orleans and Mississippi, handing out embraces like the Red Cross hands out relief supplies; Bush, at Virginia Tech, hugging the relatives of 32 murdered students.

For a president who doesn’t necessarily come across as a touchy-feely guy, he sure does touch a lot. In just the past six months, according to a database search, he has hugged hundreds of people in public: the families of dead firefighters and police officers; the parents of a posthumous Medal of Honor winner; workers at a Nashville bread company; the mayor of Huntsville, Ala.; the jockey who rode the winning horse at the Kentucky Derby; the survivors of a Kansas tornado; departing political mastermind Karl Rove; press secretary Dana Perino. He touches nobodies and world leaders alike.

The act of hugging and greeting other people is a fascinating issue, and it says a lot about one’s personality and culture. My wife and I watched the excellent Kite Runner over the weekend, and we were struck by the formalism of Afghani culture, particularly in their greetings.

I don’t sense that America has any well-established greetings customs. It tends to range from the fairly awkward, formal, stiff handshake to a peck on the check. Somewhere in between those two extremes is the hug, which has many varieties from the awkward side-hug to the full embrace.

Farhi gets into the formalism and lack thereof in presidential history, but really doesn’t get beyond the former occupants of the White House. Farhi could have asked what kind of hugger Bush tends to be. A church hugger? A Texan hugger? What’s the difference anyway?

Speaking of churches, how does Bush’s religious faith play into his tendency to hug people? What kind of church members tend to be huggers? To what extent is there a spiritual motive in a person wanting to embrace someone closely when greeting them or trying to comfort them?

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  • Jim Davis

    I put it down to partisanship. Clinton gets high marks for his warmth, although his touchy-feely ways often went below the belt. But if a Republican does it, rev up the snicker machine.

    Of course, if Bush didn’t hug, the same commentators would likely roll their eyes about his cold, distant style and whether an iceberg like that could lead a nation.

  • Stephen A.

    “The resident looked almost reassured.”

    Great Bush bashing. (yawn.) How routine. How boring.

    That aside, Bush really needs to learn the “man hug” when he’s hugging other men. Shake hands with the right hand, while leaning in with the right shoulder to touch the other guy’s right shoulder. Then give both give a firm “back tap” with the left hand. The entire procedure lasts just a few seconds.

    Here’s a video example – with a few, um, variations.

  • undergroundpewster

    At the Episcopal Church we have evolved over the course of my lifetime from not touching anyone (except to shake the rector’s hand as you walk out of the church), to passing the peace by either shaking hands or waving (if someone is more than an arms length away), to roaming the pews in search of someone needing to be touched. I never have trusted “huggers,” and I have noticed some members of our congregation will pass a non-contact peace during flu season.
    The President may be a hugger because of his genes, or he may be a product of his culture and church upbringing. Whatever the case, the Post reporter must have been having a slow news day to get stuck with this story.

  • Jerry

    That’s a very telling picture you chose for this blog entry. It’s one thing to want to hug someone. But there’s also a point about being sensitive to what the other person is feeling. Remember the kerfluffle about the German Chancellor a while ago? The picture is a classic example where the recipient of the hug is not comfortable: head turned, eyes averted. Being sensitive to such social clues is not a requirement for being President, of course, but that can really help in putting the message across.

  • Dale

    The picture is a classic example where the recipient of the hug is not comfortable: head turned, eyes averted. Being sensitive to such social clues is not a requirement for being President, of course, but that can really help in putting the message across.

    Yup. In American culture, hugging a woman does not necessarily entail a sexual intent, while hugging between men is sometimes less than comfortable. In China, male friends hang all over each other and hold hands in public, and no one thinks twice. On the other hand, men and women hugging each other is considered risque.

    I bet if someone studied the Bush family culture, the President’s demonstrations of physical affection would be a departure from the norm. The Bushes are an old Yankee family, and northeastern WASPs aren’t known for physical displays of affection. The President may have decided that he didn’t like that emotional reserve and has overcompensated.

  • Stephen A.

    But remember, Dale, that Bush I and Bush II are both avid and frequent criers. They start the waterfalls at the drop of a hat. Being chronic huggers is only a short step from that, although I do remember Bush Sr. saying once that his family wasn’t much for expressing themselves publicly. Politics is an odd profession to be in if that’s the case.

  • Chris Bolinger

    Um, Jerry, his eyes aren’t averted. Both Bush and the man being hugged are looking at the same thing, whatever it is. I am an expert on this because I used to study Mary Worth comic strips back in the 1980s and discovered that no one in that strip actually looked at anyone else.

  • Alice C. Linsley

    The Pope touches a lot of people too. So what?

  • Jerry

    I used to study Mary Worth comic strips

    Chris, I’m forced to bow to your superior knowledge of two dimensional characters.

  • Chris Bolinger

    Good one!

  • Stephen A.


  • momly

    Bush hugs because he has no sense of boundaries.

    Whatever he sees, touches, hugs – it’s his. I am constantly reminded of a toddler whenever I see or listen to our commander in chief.

    I think Bush I cries more these days, though. And I think he cries because he sees the shambles that his family’s legacy has become because of the overgrown child in the Oval Office.