Selfies and Handshakes Shouldn't Overshadow Remembering Nelson Mandela

The president's handshake with Raul Castro and his supposed "selfie" shouldn't overshadow the importance of remembering Nelson Mandela.

By SHARE
President Barack Obama shakes hands with Cuban President Raul Castro, right, during the official memorial service for former South African President Nelson Mandela at FNB Stadium Dec. 10, 2013, in Johannesburg. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
President Barack Obama shakes hands with Cuban President Raul Castro, right, during the official memorial service for former South African President Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg. Cuba has long been subject to extensive sanctions by the U.S. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Being president or prime minister often involves partaking in such social niceties as handshakes and posing for photographs. And it's a measure of how obsessed many have become with the style points over the substantive matters of being president that President Obama is being slammed for both.

At Nelson Mandela's funeral – where Obama gave a very moving and sometimes scolding speech in front of world leaders there to mourn the civil rights leader – the president happened to run by Cuban leader Raul Castro. So he shook his hand. He didn't embrace him, or hand over the keys to Blair House, or even say, "you're doing a heckuva job, Castie." He just shook his hand, which is what you do at such an event, since funerals are not about the mourners but about the deceased person being honored. For that, Obama is being accused of appeasing the Castros or somehow endorsing human rights abuses in Cuba (which indeed is a human rights violator, as are some U.S. allies and major trading partners – the latter status providing some affected blindness to such abuses).

[Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

Now, it's true that handshakes are far more loaded when there's a presidential hand involved. But so, too, is the pointed absence of any kind of tame expression of greeting. To deliberately rebuff Castro would have been a statement of its own, and not a productive one. Attempting to freeze out Cuba with an embargo and sanctions has done absolutely nothing to improve conditions in that country, which is not subject to a world embargo and (unlike other, bigger nations) is not as dependent on U.S. commerce. Sanctions can work when they are practiced by the world at large and truly damage the regime – they worked in South Africa, and brought Iran to the table for negotiations more recently. With Cuba, it is the U.S. that has isolated itself in imposing restrictions on trade and travel. Engaging with Cuba wouldn't be an endorsement of human rights abuses there. It would be a way of helping bring about change in the island nation. Repr. James McGovern, a Massachusetts Democrat, sums it up perfectly: The worst thing to happen to the Cuban regime would be Spring Break. Americans can have a much bigger influence in Cuba by showing up than by staying (by law) away. It was only a handshake. But if it's the first step towards a dialogue, is that something to denounce?

Obama was also criticized for a supposed selfie he took at the funeral with British Prime Minister David Cameron and Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt. There's a photo of the three, with Thorning-Schmidt holding the phone with both hands, and Obama helping out with one. First lady Michelle Obama is seen looking sternly ahead. The scene – which none of the critics personally witnessed – is being used to depict the president as some sort of misbehaving, self-centered child, and the first lady as peeved over his bad judgment.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the Republican Party.]

Well, maybe she is. Or maybe, she just happened to be looking ahead, thinking about the funeral, or even just really tired after a very long flight. The point is, we don't know, and it's absurd to read a major family drama into a photograph.

Secondly, we don't know Obama was behind the photo-taking. In fact, there's more evidence that he was not. We've already been told that for security reasons, he can't have an IPhone, only a Blackberry (and the device in question does not look like a Blackberry). And it's the Danish prime minister's two hands that are on the phone, suggesting that she was the one who initiated the picture. If that indeed was the case, what was Obama supposed to do – refuse to join in the photo? Tell the teacher? We also don't know what was happening at the time. Yes, if someone was in the middle of delivering a eulogy, taking a photo of oneself would have been in very bad form. But if it was between speeches, and if people were talking amongst themselves on the floor (which is what it sounded like, even during Obama's speech), it's not quite so terrible.

Mandela is dead, and the U.S. and the world have an opportunity to forge the sort of reconciliation the South African leader advocated and practiced. We ought to focus on that, instead of a couple of gestures at the funeral.

  • Read Peter Roff: Kill Paul Ryan's and Patty Murray's Tax-and-Spending Budget Deal
  • Read Charles Wheelan: Progressives Could Become a Tea Party of the Left
  • Check out U.S. News Weekly, available on iPad