Why is it that Barack Obama’s handshakes create such a stir?

The Obamas fist pump congratulation after the North Carolina primary win sent Barack’s candidacy into a bit of a racial tailspin, raising the specter of a secret terrorist plot apparently masterminded by dap-giving black folks and urban youth of all races. Now the genuinely pleasant greeting between President Obama and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has some in the GOP concerned about the security of America’s state secrets. Newt Gingrich seems to believe that the Obama-Chavez handshake signals to all the world that U.S. foreign policy now condones human rights violation, drug trafficking, and illegal border crossing.

I’m not completely sure how this transference of policy authority occurs through skin-on-skin contact between world leaders, but we might need to get some vaccine research going right away. Afterall, President Obama shook hands with Senator John McCain at least a half dozen times last year. Does this mean that Obama has also authorized a Republican domestic, policy agenda? (shudder)

Those who are alarmed about President Obama’s easy, casual camaraderie with Chavez misunderstand the role of civility in public life. Barack Obama is, if nothing else, a civil and gracious political leader. In all honesty, he is a little too civil for my taste. I am cut from the sarcastic, snarky, blogger cloth. I hold grudges and prefer to punish my political foes with biting commentary whenever possible. Barack Obama appoints his adversaries to cabinet positions and asks those he disagrees with to pray at his inauguration. It is a core element of who he is. Even in Obama’s pre-presidential book, The Audacity of Hope, he displays his brand of polite restraint. He condemns racism, but doesn’t name racists. He blames conservative policies for creating our national mess, but doesn’t attack conservatives. You don’t have to like it, but that handshake was authentic Obama.

I was thinking about this streak of civility in the President a great deal today because April 20th is the anniversary of the Columbine massacres. For many of us who are teachers, this is a day a for reflection. We seek to understand the immensity of the horror in that murderous rampage, but also seek to encounter the agonizing reality that the murderers were just boys themselves. It is hard to imagine that our students, even at their worst, would be capable of such monstrosity. So the effort is to condemn the violence while honoring the humanity in both the victims and the perpetrators. The work is to examine our own complicity in both damaging and arming the young people in our midst. On April 20th it feels like a struggle to separate the acts we condemn from the human people with whom we share our earth.

So it is with Obama and Chavez. Barack Obama is no friend of Venezuelan economic and political policies, but Obama follows a political logic that separates human actors from the atrocity or banality of their acts. I sometimes vehemently disagree with this impulse, as in the case of his unwillingness to prosecute the perpetrators of torture, but I do see a kind of consistency in his approach. Obama is following a politics of civility.

Or maybe a handshake is just a handshake.