Hug Between Obama and Bush Humanized the Presidency

The hug between Bush and Obama on the 9/11 anniversary was a historic moment.


Since when have two presidents (past and president) hugged each other in public? 

Since a speck of time ago—Sept. 11, 2011, to be exact, when Barack Obama and George W. Bush embraced each other in a far-off field in Pennsylvania. That was the site where the doomed United 93 aircraft crashed to the ground 10 Septembers ago. Four Arab hijackers headed to the nation's capital were thwarted in their mission to ram the Capitol dome by a fury of heroics by the roughly 40 passengers and crew. The day started as a beautiful blue Tuesday morning. By noon, steel had shattered into smithereens, sparkling like crystal in the sun, and the men and women travelers lay like dust on the ground. 

[See photos of the 10th anniversary of 9/11]

After the somber dedication of their memorial in Shanksville, Pa., Obama and Bush, his White House predecessor, hugged each other in a shared gesture of grief and comfort across party lines. Not a lot of love has been lost between these two, one a rough-hewn scion of Eastern political and class privilege and the other a smooth blend of reconciled opposites who chose Chicago's South Side for a political education. Then again, they'll always have Harvard—the business and law schools—to tie them.

But presidential historians and fellow Americans, take note! Let's mark the moment in American cultural climate change. This historical first hug between presidents in public is a big deal, as the 42nd president would say. Sorry, it's no harbinger of bipartisanship, but it shows the ground has shifted under us in a good way. It's not something that can be legislated and debated and signed. You see, the rule used to be, men don't hug each other in public. Period.

In fact, the unwritten law used to be even harsher in this Puritan-bred land of ours: fathers and sons don't hug, period, even if the son is going off to college, war, or other kind of journey. A stiff handshake was the way to say a proper good bye or happy hello at a reunion. I watched many such scenes at airports as a girl, fascinated at the awkward choreography. From a family of sisters, I saw the straitjacketed standard for boys and their dads as a curiosity.

[Read: America Must Not Return to a Pre-9/11 Mentality]

Then along came Bill Clinton. He's the man that really brought about the historic first: the hug between Bush and Obama, on an occasion of deep mourning.

In all seriousness, he's the man who made it okay, even cool, for men and boys to hug. The grinning governor from Arkansas singlehandedly greened the emotional environment for American men—even those from the cold and old Puritan-ruled states. And he's never gotten proper recognition for that sea change from the earnest men's club of presidential historians. C'mon. 

Yes, much has been made of Clinton's fondness for the opposite sex, but Clinton was indisputably the first man on the national stage to express gladness and affection for other men by greeting them with a hug. During the campaign of 1992 onward, to this day, Clinton exudes bonhomie and a warm physical outreach that was first read as a Southern custom, like his saying "hey" for hello. (That sunniness remains undimmed and, if you don't believe me, see his Face the Nation appearance Sunday when he found something nice to say about Dick Cheney.)   

[See a slide show of 5 reasons Obama is the same as Bush, Clinton.]

Given Clinton's outsize personality and influence over our national conversation along with the passage of time, it was inevitable that hugs between men were going to happen, starting sometime in the mid- to late 1990s. (The exact date cannot be pinpointed.) The melting-down of the metal straitjackets for males happened without much ado or comment. By now, the simple handshake is becoming a bit vintage, a symbol of restraint we may look longingly upon one day, like the stark and elegantly cut styles of the early '60s. 

Hollywood has embraced a de rigueur hug between men with such a vengeance that comedian Jon Stewart must have hugged Stephen Colbert  six or seven times Sunday night, during the Emmys award show. Too much of a good thing, if you ask me.

But the hug between Obama and Bush, that's worth pausing over. It never happened between George Washington and John Adams, of that we can be sure. Dwight D. Eisenhower never gave John F. Kennedy a hug for good luck. Obama and Bush humanized the presidency in that one moment—and Clinton was, in a way, right in the middle of it.

  • Read Rick Newman: How America Has Underperformed Since 9/11
  • See a photo gallery of Bush’s legacy.
  • Vote: Is the United States Safer 10 Years After 9/11?