assembled in Johannesburg for the Nelson Mandela memorial service, and
Obama shook his hand. What have other U.S. presidents done when facing
a towering figure who fought poverty and discrimination with struggle
“We, too, must act on behalf of justice. We, too, must act on behalf
of peace,” said Mr. Obama.
But it was Obama’s own action that produced a flurry of quick news
reports back in the U.S. on Mr. Mandela’s memorial service. As he made
his way down a line of world leaders gathered to honor the great
anti-apartheid leader, Obama shook hands with Cuba’s Raúl Castro.
The cold war history of strained relations between the U.S. and the
communist island to its south remains potent more than half a century
after Raúl’s brother Fidel seized power. Many conservatives in the
U..S reacted quickly and harshly to the handshake. Some noted that the
taller Obama even seemed to bow to the shorter Raúl Castro.
“For those who believe in human rights and liberty, the sight of our
president bounding up some stairs to energetically shake hands with
Raúl Castro, dictator of Cuba, was more than a little unsettling —
regardless of the circumstance,” wrote John Nolte on the right-leaning
Others noted that the handshake might not go over well in south
Florida, where Cuban-Americans remain a dominant political force, and
that Mr. Castro himself seemed pretty pleased with the moment.
“From Reuters report: ‘Castro smiled as Obama shook his hand’…And
yet Obama declined to attend [conservative British Prime Minister
Margaret] Thatcher’s funeral,” tweeted Fox News host Todd Starnes.
Democrats replied that a handshake with no policy change equals mere
protocol. At this point, there is no sign the Obama administration is
planning sweeping changes in its Cuba policy.
The White House has allowed cultural trips to Cuba and other means of
personal engagement, but the overall framework of the U.S. embargo and
travel restrictions remains in place.
This policy itself is counterproductive and immoral, according to
Slate economic writer Matt Yglesias. That’s what people should be
focusing on, he writes, instead of a handshake.
“Everyone knows this policy doesn’t work, but nobody wants to admit
it,” Mr. Yglesias writes Tuesday.
Liberals even laughed at the uproar with some saying (sarcastically)
that the handshake was a secret sign signaling the socialist takeover
of the U.S.
But for better or worse, presidential protocol remains a powerful
symbol easily used for partisan purposes. Conservatives opposed to
Obama have long complained that he seems too deferential to some
foreign leaders. This is just the latest in a line of perceived
missteps that include Obama “bowing” to Saudi King Abdullah and former
Chinese President Hu Jintao.
Whether Obama actually bowed in these instances — both of which
involved shorter foreign leaders — is open to interpretation, noted
Washington Post Fact Checker Glenn Kessler in 2011 after the Mitt
Romney campaign made the kowtow charge.
And Republican presidents have had their own greeting controversies,
noted Mr. Kessler. Richard Nixon gave a bit of a bow to Emperor
Hirohito of Japan in 1971, despite the fact that Hirohito had served
as his nation’s monarch in World War II.
And in 1972, Nixon shared smiling handshakes with Chinese communist
dictator Mao Tse Tung. Of course, that was part of his famous visit to
China, which announced an about-face in U.S. policy toward normal
We’d like to make two final notes about the Castro handshake. First,
Bill Clinton preceded Obama here, as he did in the Oval Office.
President Clinton shook hands with Fidel Castro himself in 2000 after
a United Nations luncheon in New York City. Second, perhaps Raúl
Castro was listening closely to Obama’s speech on Tuesday, and was
stung by a line that could well have been aimed at him.
“There are too many leaders who claim solidarity with [Mandela’s] struggle for freedom, but do not tolerate dissent from their own
people,” said Obama.