On Tuesday night, former President Bill Clinton spent more than 40 minutes, and covered four decades, attempting to humanize his wife, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
A day later, President Obama did it in three seconds, with a hug that will go down in history.
Addressing the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Obama spoke at great length about Clinton’s admirable qualities, saying, among other things, that she was the most qualified presidential candidate ever.
But it was the after-hug that, well, clinched it.
As the president basked in the highly emotional response from Democratic delegates to what may have been his last big speech to the nation, the candidate made a “surprise” appearance onstage. First pointing at each other in mutual admiration, the two stepped together. Clinton looked up into the president’s face — at 6-feet-1, he’s got at least six inches on her — and smiled, saying a few words, no doubt of gratitude.
Then they each stepped into a long and full-torso embrace, after which Clinton briefly rested her head on Obama’s chest. The crowd went wild, in the arena and online.
Although undoubtedly staged to provide a front-page photo-op, The Hug quickly became a collegial version of Klimt’s “The Kiss,” except the complexity of the context and relationships involved made it a far riskier move.
Warm hugs — the charm of “Frozen’s” Olaf notwithstanding — are notoriously tough to pull off on television. Too little physical contact for too short a time and the gesture looks awkward, a sign of emotional ambivalence or even sublimated loathing. Too tight or too long and onlookers tend to get uncomfortable and shout things like “get a room.”
And while Obama is something of a hugger — just ask Chris Christie! — Hillary Clinton is not known for her public cuddliness. Indeed, the emotional distance of her public persona has long been at odds with the warm and generous woman described by those who know her well.
It makes sense, of course; women in power have long had to fight any sign or symbol that might suggest weakness — why do you think power suits and shoulder pads were invented?
Never mind the personal peculiarities of Clinton; for the first woman with a real shot at the White House to nestle, even for a moment, on any man’s chest, particularly the one who, just eight years ago, dismissed her in debate as being “likeable enough,” well, as social media reflected in its frenzied reaction, the moment spoke volumes.
Reddit may have tried to wreck it with obligatory attempts at sexualization, but it was a lovely visual amid two weeks of scorched-earth anger, conflict and seemingly unbreachable division. Mere hours before, Donald Trump called on Russia to cyberattack the Democratic Party.
Obviously the context was political. Obama was there to pass the baton, and he needs Clinton to win for personal and professional reasons. As the president made very clear, he believes that a Trump presidency would spell utter disaster for this country. It would most certainly be a stinging repudiation of his administration, and a real part of his legacy.
Clinton, too, knows the importance of visibly respecting, and courting, her predecessor; Al Gore’s decision to immediately and markedly distance himself from Bill Clinton most certainly contributed to Gore’s defeat.
Obama’s speech did exactly what it set out to do; with his signature oratorical skill, Obama anointed Clinton, condemned Trump and offered an optimistic view of the world to counter the Republican’s. Like First Lady Michelle Obama, he was there to unite the Democrats, to offer respect to the still-grumbling Bernie Sanders supporters and ask the American people, in very direct language, to rally for Clinton the way they rallied for him.
But The Hug, that was something else. A physical exclamation point to the convention’s theme of unity, yes. But the embrace was so obviously an act of mutual admiration, fueled by encouragement on his part, gratitude on hers, that for just a few minutes, politics did not go on as usual. It paused and considered the complexities of professional friendship.
He is tall and physically graceful and has never been shy about using those attributes to full advantage; during early debates, he often leaned against stools or chairs where others sat, used his hands when speaking. Although he did appear this year to hike and eat bear-chewed salmon with Bear Grylls, he’s never embraced the horse-riding, brush-clearing, deer-hunting shorthand of other presidents. He has rarely been photographed holding a gun.
Though many wished he would, Obama never lost his temper; though many wished he wouldn’t, Obama almost always chose a path of cooperation and compromise.
From the moment he took office, he spoke often and openly about his children, insisted on making it home for dinner, often putting them to bed. His relationship with his vice president is total unabashed BFF; he’s not afraid to cry in public, or, for that matter, to sing.
Fighting, consciously or not, against stereotype, Hillary Clinton may not be at ease with public displays of affection or emotion, but Obama certainly is. As the video that played before his speech made clear, he is possibly our most physical president, here reaching out to brush the cheek of a child, there letting a boy touch his hair. He hugs often and fully, but more than that, he is often seen in physical connection, leaning shoulder to shoulder with Joe Biden or automatically pulling people closer when he shakes their hand.
So The Hug wasn’t just about him passing the baton or her expressing gratitude. It was one president saying to a possible other: “You got this, girl.”