During a bitter Kentucky Senate debate, GOP candidate Rand Paul made headlines by refusing to shake his opponent’s hand.  Does such a public action, or non-action, help or hurt?  I reviewed the history of the non-handshake for evidence.

Though the debate at the University of Louisville dealt with many issues, the one that took center stage was an ad that the Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway ran about his opponent, according to the Associated Press story “Kentucky Senate Race Turns Bitter In Debate” by Roger Alford and Bruce Schreiner.  The commercial questioned Paul’s pro-life religious credentials, citing the story about Paul being part of a group that tied up some gal and took her to a lake to worship an “Aqua Buddha.”  Conway claimed that such a group mocked people for their religious beliefs.

Paul concluded by quoting scripture, and noting his involvement with a Presbyterian Church.  He then declared he would not shake hands with the man who questioned his religion and left the stage.  Would such a move help or hurt?

I use the term “non-action” as a deliberate shunning act to distinguish from inaction, or doing nothing.   For example, in 1978, most people thought that GOP Senator John Tower hurt himself by refusing to shake Congressman Bob Krueger’s extended hand at a BBQ event following the Krueger campaign’s assertion that Tower chased women and whiskey.  They noted how Tower was seen as a jerk, lost his overwhelming lead in the polls, and won reelection by a narrow margin in an otherwise gloomy year for Democrats.

But what people forget is how Tower turned his non-action to his advantage.  In his book Mudslingers: The 25 Dirtiest Political Campaigns of All Time, Kerwin C. Swint showed how Tower’s advertisement on the subject helped him win without shaking hands.  In the commercial, Tower held up a photo of the non-handshake and said “Perhaps you’ve seen this picture of my refusal to shake the hand of my opponent.  I was brought up to believe that a handshake is a symbol of friendship and respect, not a meaningless hypocritical gesture.  My opponent has slurred my wife, my daughters, and falsified my record.  My kind of Texan doesn’t shake hands with that kind of man.  Integrity is one Texas tradition you can count on me to uphold.”  Swint claimed that the ad helped Tower regain the lead in the race.  He won by a narrow 50.3%-49.7% vote.

Incidentally, the very things Krueger accused Tower of helped sink the Texas Senator when President George H. W. Bush nominated him for Secretary of Defense in 1989.  The allegations of alcohol and extramarital affairs called into question his judgment, and Tower was defeated in his bid for confirmation.  Ironically, Tower was defeated in efforts by both liberals (looking for revenge against Bush for the nasty 1988 Election) and conservatives (who thought he was either too moderate politically, or too wild in his behavior).  Instead, Dick Cheney was tapped for SecDef and the rest is history!

Perhaps the Tower 1978 Senatorial Strategy was what Texas businessman Clayton Williams was thinking when he went up to Ann Richards and publicly refused to shake her hand before a publicity event, after she claimed his Midland bank may have laundered drug money.  Folks claimed he lost his huge lead in that 1990 gubernatorial election over that non-handshake.  But Williams’ loose words about women throughout the campaign may have done himself in more than refusing to shake hands.

Pundits made a huge to-do over Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton not shaking hands, despite their close physical proximity, during George W. Bush’s State of the Union Address in the midst of the 2008 Election.  But if neither candidate offers to shake hands, is it a loss for either side?

One would assume that Paul is channeling Senator Tower in the public non-handshake.  He may have good reason to do so.  Every poll in this race is tightening, according to RealClearPolitics and Paul feels he needs a game changer to reverse the slide, just like Tower did.  But he’s got to watch out….actions keeping the Conway ad in the news is like free advertising for Democrats, calling more attention to those wild college days (like Christine O’Donnell’s ad about not being a witch will get folks in Delaware more interested in her crazy past claims).  And Conway should be focusing more on Paul’s comments about high Medicare deductibles if he wants to sustain his momentum, since Kentuckians are less likely to be motivated by college pranks on Election Day.

By the way, I’ve actually shaken hands with Clayton Williams, Ann Richards and Bob Krueger.

John A. Tures

John A. Tures

John A. Tures is an Associate Professor of Political Science at LaGrange College in Georgia.  He writes about international politics, elections, sports, and the War of 1812.