The great debate is on. Did W. Bush smear his hand on the backside of Bill Clinton's shirt after a Haitian hand shake out of obsessive germ phobia or was it a case of blatant and insulting racism? After all, the hands the ex-prez gripped were black hands, and the literature is filled with tales of whites cringing in horror at the prospect of shaking the hand of an African-American, or if forced to, wiping their hand on their pants, shirt, a handkerchief, or a napkin, or squirting a blop of sanitizer in their hands as soon as they're out of eye shot of the African-American. I remember several occasions seeing white men wipe their hands on the side of their pants or grab at a napkin to wipe their hands after shaking hands with a black man.
Even Obama isn't immune to the hand phobia slap; he famously and good-humoredly tells the story of his meet-and-greet encounter at the White House with Bush. The 43rd president quickly turned to an aide, who lathered his hand with a glob of sanitizer after shaking his soon to be successor's hands. Obama shrugged it off as a cold avoidance preventive. The President is right. Sanitizers, washes, rubs, and alcohol wipes are mandatory for anyone who regularly slaps hands with the public. Certainly presidents, ex-presidents, and politicians of all stripes slap more hands than anyone else. The risk of caching a cold or a flu virus always looms large in their thinking. Thus there are the ever present piles and gallons of handy wipes and sanitizers.
So it's likely that Bush, with no indulgent and dutiful aide standing by with the requisite sanitizer, reflexively used the next best thing -- and that was the backside of Clinton's shirt. We'll give him a pass on the germ avoidance angle. I'll also toss him a pass for his willingness, along with Clinton, to help raise millions for Haitian relief. It won't cancel out the monumental wreckage of his presidency, but it's a needed boost for Haiti, and that's a good thing.
Now there's Bush the racist. A parade of GOP politicians, pundits, and boosters routinely got and get caught with their racism oozing out their pores, with assorted racist quips, cracks, digs, slurs, slips and gaffes. But there's no public hint that Bush ever uttered a racist crack. By that standard, Bush is not a personal racist. On the other hand, there's much evidence that Bush maintained mute silence when GOP big wheels got caught red-faced and red-handed making racist remarks. Anyone remember Trent Lott? It's a case of judging a president by the company he kept. And there were plenty of racists in the GOP that he did keep company with.
Haitians, then, shouldn't take Bush's Clinton shirt wipe too personally. Bush would say that germs are on hands of all colors. It just so happens that the two times that he got caught wiping his hands happened to be after shaking black hands.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His nationally heard talk show is on KTYM-AM 1460 AM Los Angeles, Fridays 9:30 AM and KPFK Pacifica Radio 90.7 Los Angeles, Saturdays Noon PST.