President Obama and GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney in dueling… (Justin Sulisvan / AFP / Getty…)
They're germy, they're squirmy, they can't even vote, and still they get face time -- and kissy-face time -- with presidential wannabes.
What is with all the campaign baby-kissing?
Politicians find themselves thrust into potentially awkward situations all the time. They are expected to eat all manner of odd-tasting and oddly-shaped food with gusto. They are expected to wear odd headgear: Michael Dukakis in a helmet was a "fail," but Calvin Coolidge in a Sioux feather bonnet looked almost passable.
JFK’s dislike of headgear is well known; on the morning of his assassination, and probably mindful of the potentially unflattering pictures, he dodged Texans’ attempt to put a ten-gallon cowboy hat on his chestnut thatch of hair. "Mr. President, we know that you don’t wear a hat," said the presenter, but then gave it to him anyway. To chants of "Put it on!" JFK said he would -- in the White House the next Monday, which turned out to be the day he was buried.
Baby-kissing has the same pitfalls. It can look great -- or it can go badly awry, which is why some campaigners have been leery of laying lips on an infant. Evidence President George W. Bush in Germany in July 2006.
President Eisenhower was accosted by a mother outside a Georgia church in 1953; the woman asked whether Ike could hold her baby while she took a photo. "OK," said Eisenhower, "but hurry up."
Eisenhower spent more time with a baby elephant, the GOP symbol.
It's a far older tradition than you'd think, dating from long before the photo-op. The Times reported in 1887 that Andrew Jackson was presented with a rather grimy baby to buss. Jackson greeted mother and child but handed off the kissing duties to his secretary of War, who stood at his elbow.
And as The Times also reported in 1897, President William McKinley, at public events, "shied off a little from the women with babies. He would not kiss the infants, but contented himself with shaking their hands."
Abraham Lincoln did a kind of baby-kissing, with an older child. While running for president in 1860, a New York girl named Grace Bedell wrote to him suggesting he grow a beard to improve his appearance. Lincoln did, and on his inaugural train trip, he stopped in her New York town. As she later told it: "He climbed down and sat down with me on the edge of the station platform. 'Gracie,' he said, 'look at my whiskers. I have been growing them for you.' Then he kissed me.' "
But Richard Nixon, campaigning for California governor in 1962 in Angels Camp, in Gold Rush country, was confronted by a young couple who approached him with their 8-week-old baby and "the unmistakable look of fond parents," according to The Times. A couple of teenage boys began taunting Nixon: "Go ahead, Dick, kiss the baby." Nixon declined. "Firmly, but with a smile," The Times wrote.
Nixon seemed more comfortable cuddling for the cameras with Checkers, the cocker spaniel -- perhaps not surprising, considering that Checkers once saved Nixon’s political skin.
Mother Jones did its own investigate survey of the toddler-smooching political history.
Presidential campaigns have to be mindful of the candidate’s health: Keeping him or her isolated from a cold that can silence a voice a week or two before an election is vital. And babies are little germ factories.
But what about the opposite? Why would parents want to expose their tiny offspring to someone who has shaken scores of hands already that day? Is it really worth it to get your baby in the embrace of the leader -- or potential leader -- of the free world for a moment’s fame or for Facebook posterity?
For more than 150 years, American parents have said, oh yeah. And with the video rolling from every angle these days, what candidate can refuse?
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