A hug, a handshake, a hand pound—all are the hallmarks of the consummate political figure. Former President Clinton is known for his “two-hand” handshake. Michelle Obama is a well-known hugger. A photo of President Barack Obama giving a hand pound to a White House janitor has circulated widely.
But presidential candidates sometimes have the hardest time reaching out to embrace or clasp hands with their own kind.
After Clinton finished his bullet-pointed defense of Obama’s work as president on Wednesday night at the Democratic National Convention, the incumbent came out, grinning, to join the former commander in chief. Clinton responded with a deep bow and a full-bodied, eyes closed, hug. Had the two not spent much of Obama’s presidency in frosty silence, the gesture would not have been so surprising.
But it’s far from the first time two former rivals have come together, whether for show or for real, at a convention. The rival handshake and hug at the convention has been a time-honored tradition since the second half of the 20th century.
When Obama defeated Hillary Rodham Clinton—Bill Clinton’s wife and the current secretary of State—in the 2008 Democratic primaries, acrimony abounded between Obama and the Clintons. Both Bill and Hillary rebounded to campaign vigorously for Obama. But after Election Day, Obama sent signals to Bill Clinton that he didn’t want anyone backseat driving. Likewise, Hillary Clinton turned down Obama’s initial offer to become secretary of State, only accepting under Obama’s full-court pressure.
While Obama and Hillary Clinton have developed a strong relationship during his presidency, Bill remained on the sidelines for most of it. His inability to have Obama’s ear even spurred Clinton to write a book. But last summer, over a round of golf, Clinton came back into the fold.
But rival reconciliations have not always been so calculated and smooth. In 2004, Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry just didn’t trust his main primary rival, John Edwards. But polls showed that making the North Carolinian his vice president would help Kerry’s chances for the White House. So the senator from Massachusetts met with Edwards once, and then twice, after the first meeting made Kerry “queasy.” He was put off by Edwards’s insincere sincerity. Edwards told Kerry a story he claimed to have never told anyone. After his son’s death, Edwards said, he had climbed onto the slab at the funeral home, wrapped his arms around his son’s dead body, and promised to make the world a better place. Quickly, Kerry realized that Edwards had run the same bit by him a year or two earlier, almost verbatim.
Still, the two were quite chummy throughout the Democratic convention. The frequently hugged it out, embraced each other’s wives, and even put it all together for a giant group hug.
But two months after the duo went down in the election, Edwards stopped returning Kerry’s phone calls and the two haven’t talked since.
1980 was a year full of rival reconciliation. On the Democratic side, the public saw a forced handshake between President Carter and insurgent presidential candidate Edward Kennedy, then a senator from Massachusetts. Kennedy went to the convention with a slim hope of securing the nomination. In his concession speech, Kennedy nominally supported Carter, but mostly gave a fiery call to anchor a drifting Democratic Party in liberal ideals. Although the candidates shook hands on the convention stage, they remained distant afterward.
“I take the unusual step of carrying the cause and the commitment of my campaign personally to our national convention,” Kennedy said in what is seen as his most famous speech. “And I speak out of a deep trust in our capacity to proceed with boldness and a common vision that will feel and heal the suffering of our time and the divisions of our party.”
The 1980 Republican National Convention was the culmination of four rivalry-filled years. Eventual nominee Ronald Reagan was intent on picking former President Ford as his running mate, and he refused to consider George H.W. Bush, his main primary competitor. Despite pressure from his campaign staff, Reagan held onto his desire for Ford until the eleventh hour. Only the night before the vice presidential nomination did Reagan relent, calling Bush at 11:38 p.m. Two days later, the three appeared together on stage in a three-way smiling embrace with Ford in the middle, buttressed by the running mates.
But Reagan and Ford had actually been at odds since Reagan almost upset Ford during the 1976 primaries. The night of Ford’s acceptance speech at the ‘76 Republican National Convention, he stunned the entire hall—not to mention his staff—by calling Reagan to the stage mid-speech. A camera caught Reagan’s wife, Nancy, imploring her husband to stay seated. “No, no no,” she said. Reagan descended to the stage and shook Ford’s hand for the crowd, but proceeded to be a lackluster campaigner for Ford.
Twelve years earlier, Lyndon Johnson never completely got over losing the Democratic presidential bid to John Kennedy. The two made a show of posing for the media at their hotel shaking hands the morning Kennedy announced he would nominate Johnson for vice president. But the gregarious Texan was forced into a diminutive vice presidential role due to his ongoing distant relationship with the Kennedys, particularly Robert Kennedy, John’s campaign manager and later attorney general.
As Johnson biographer Robert Caro put it, when Johnson and Robert first met during the primaries, “it was like two strange dogs walking into a room and there was a low growl and the hair rises on their neck.”