Handshake Ethics, Professionalism, and Rand Paul

Democrat Jack Conway, attempting to take down his opponent for the U.S. Senate seat in Kentucky, Rand Paul, decided to go low. He employed a number of personal attacks including questions about Paul’s participation in a harmless, if bizarre college prank that had been the subject of a blatantly unfair article in Gentleman’s Quarterly. It was a desperate, mean, and unprofessional performance by Conway. Paul was obviously and understandably furious.

At the end of the debate, Paul rushed by Conway, ignoring his outstretched hand. I sympathize with him. I empathize with him. In the heat of the moment, having just had my opponent smear me on television with tales out of school—literally—I might have even done the same thing, though I hope not. Nevertheless, Paul rejected a vital ritual as well as a cardinal rule of civility in the political arena, where, as in the sporting arena, the handshake after the contest sends a symbolic message of reconciliation, forgiveness, respect, and most of all, professionalism.

The emphasis is on “symbolic.” The final handshake does not necessarily convey actual forgiveness or respect. After the nationally televised Vice-Presidential debate  in which Sen. Lloyd Bentsen delivered a devastating and belittling personal insult to Dan Quayle , Quayle still mustered the civility and professionalism to shake Bentsen’s hand. I’m sure Quayle wanted to slug him, or spit in his eye. The handshake, however, sent a different, important and essential message:

“This isn’t personal. Whatever happens in the future, my actions will not be driven by personal vendettas, anger, hatred or bias. I will work with friends, strangers and political enemies alike, putting aside personal grudges and grievances, to seek and achieve what is best for the public good and our nation. By shaking my hand, you pledge to do the same.”

Rand Paul couldn’t bring himself to send that message, and make that symbolic pledge with the ritual shaking of his opponent’s hand. The message that Paul’s conduct sent was that he will be a leader governed as much by emotions as principle, and that he is not professional in his approach to government.  In Congress and in the Senate, the nation is paralyzed by its elected representatives’ unwillingness to compromise, be civil, collaborate, and work with colleagues whose positions, actions, words and personalities they oppose or even find offensive. Representative democracy doesn’t work under these conditions.

The toxic and uncivil environment in Washington isn’t the fault of Rand Paul, but what the country needs is more professionalism and civility, not more of the same. Rand Paul’s refusal to shake hands shows that he doesn’t understand the profession he is preparing to enter, and that he is likely to practice the politics of anger rather than the politics of reason.

Jack Conway’s performance was despicable, but it spoke for itself. Paul didn’t have to show Conway or viewers that he felt abused and was angry: they already knew that. What he did need to show voters was that he had the temperment, competence, focus and grace to rise above personal grievances to be a responsible and trustworthy leader.

He couldn’t bring himself to do it.

16 thoughts on “Handshake Ethics, Professionalism, and Rand Paul

  1. We have disagreed over Rand Paul before, but this is not one of those times. One can make allowances for Paul’s relative youth, I suppose, or the fact that he’s something of a newcomer in the political arena, but neither of those things really excuse his lack of basic civility. If he didn’t know the moment called for his accepting the proffered handshake, he should have.

  2. Yes. I fear this is the Achilles heel of the Tea Party candidates generally, and I frankly don’t know what the solution is. The professions in politics are corrupt, and the uncorrupted aren’t professional.

  3. I disagree.

    For too long the problems of Washington seem to have escalated into asking for forgiveness than for permission. These egomaniacs will do or say anything and expect that they can shake your hand later. This indicates that there is no consequence for bad behavior.

    “Look Ma! I can lob a live grenade into the neighbor’s yard without starting a feud!”

    Additionally, your assessment that every contest deserves the reconciliatory handshake at the end fails when taken to extremes. The handshake was probably meaningless to both men and did not carry the high values placed on it by your article. By not shaking his hand, Rand Paul has added meaning to what didn’t happen.

    Was this a case of extremes in which Rand Paul should not have shaken this man’s hand? Maybe not. But I am glad to see some honest emotion.

  4. I’m conflicted. I thought Jack was right, then I read Tim’s comment and decided that Tim was right.

    The larger point, it seems to me, is jack’s cogent argument that civility in politics is a matter of ethics. Clearly Jack is right on that point, a point that I never saw so clearly.

    Both candidates were uncivil, Conway for his ugly and unfair accusations, Paul for his refusal to shake hands. Which was worse? I guess Conway was worse, although that doesn’t make me feel any better about Paul. I’m unhappy, and if I were a Kentuckian I don’t know which way I’d go.

  5. I sympathize with Tim’s point, which is well stated. Handshakes, however, are the purest symbolism and ritual, and it is important that our leaders represent the best in conduct and deportment, even when less than the best is understandable. There was a time, after all, when political disputes in the US might end in a duel. True professionals strive not to take political discourse personally, and when one makes it personal, as Conway seemed to be doing, the ethical response is to rise above the personal, not sink to it.

    To the extent that refusing to shake hands could be done well, Paul did it: he announced his intention in advance, and it was a kind of shunning, a statement that Conway had so violated basic decency that he had forfeited the benefit of the reconciliating handshake. The problem is that once the tradition fails, who is to say what conduct justified refusing to shake? Bentsen’s planned rebuke? How about Sharon Angle’s ambush of Harry Reid, asking him where all his money came from? Mean questions, inappropriate questions, or just tough questions?

    It’s too important to keep whatever shreds of civility that still survive in our political process. Conway didn’t need any further gestures of anger: he thoroughly disgraced himself by his shameless tactic (and ad.)

    Tim, Paul’s honest emotion was on display to good effect during the debate. He would only have gained, not lost, by taking the high road and shaking the bastard’s hand.

    • This is a tough one, because I am in the position of having to cast a vote for one of these … ahem … men.

      Paul’s actions smacked of superficial exploitation, but one can never be sure — he may have been legitimately angry. I am inherently suspicious of “righteous” anger among those running for political office. Call me jaded.

      The relatively few liberals defending Conway claim that Paul is really a atheist posing as a Christian, and they point to his professed admiration of Ayn Rand as proof — she was an atheist, so apparently Paul must also be. They claim that makes his religion fair game, because he is, according to them, only a political Christian and lying about his imputed atheism. A more obviously unethical rationalization does not exist in the world.

      For my part, Paul is a poor representative, in my opinion, of Kentucky’s values. Conway is, sadly, even worse. Conway has won the race to the gutter, and in his desire to emphasize that victory, Paul has gotten ankle deep himself. All he has to do now is make good on his threat to skip the next debate, and Paul will go swimming in arrogant petulance, just as Conway is swimming in either stupidity or desperation (dealer’s choice).

      The handshake incident is regrettable, but if we close our eyes and concentrate really hard, explainable if, as Jack says, unprofessional. Paul could make hay, now that he has reaped a bonanza in sympathy, by forgiving Conway and showing up at the second debate. Conway should find some substantive reason to attack Paul (of which there are many) and learn his lesson. After having his head handed to him on a platter with an apple in its mouth by Chris Matthews last night, one would think Conway would be ready to move on.

      Let’s hope so.

      • Thanks, Glenn. My Dad was a Kentuckian, so I have a warm place in my heart for the Bluegrass State. This race is one of those that make me wish I could indulge my political pundit instincts, but I have to stick to the topic. What amazes me about Conway is this: doesn’t he know even talking about “Aqua Buddha” makes anyone sound ridiculous?

  6. I understand that the “gentlemanly’ approach to Congressional gentility is a long tradition, which has allowed our legislators to address one another as “my esteemed colleague” and so forth and then call him out for a duel, or cand him, or try to assassinate him, etc.

    I also understand that this modicum of civility is an absolute requirement if we are to maintain a working House and Senate.

    On the other hand, while election races are no dirtier than they have ever been, they ARE more immediate (thanks to the Internet) than they have ever been, and I see no evidence that candidates are taking this into consideration as they metaphorically assassinate their opponents.

    When one has been skewered horribly and unfairly by one’s unethical opponent, is one really required to be polite to the scumbag? We are not in Congress, here. The legislature will not rise or fall on this behavior. Does one have to give tacit honor to an individual who does not deserve it, simply in the name of phony civilty?

    I think not.

  7. Upon reflection, I have not changed my position.

    All that this “holier than thou” nonsense has done is allow the uncivil candidate to get away with his/her behavior, knowing full well that his/her opponent will take the high road and thus let him/her get away with bad behavior in the name of civility.

    Why not strike a blow in the name of ACCOUNTABILITY for a change? Why not refuse to shake the hand of a lying SOB?

    This kind of phony civility has allowed legislators to get away with fraud, theft, and all kinds of nonsense for decades, and, in the name of civility and respect, only be called on the carpet by the House and Senate Ethics Committees when their actions have become so lurid and obvious that the “gentlemen across the aisle” (or whatever) have had no choice but to address their behavior.

    This is where our silly brand of “civility” has led us. Make no mistake: a modicum of civility is required for a republic to exist, to be sure. But what we have now is an old boy network which excuses bad behavior, allows earmarks by both parties, enables virtual lifetime seats in both houses, and creates a club that has little to do with the constituents that presumably are represented.

    If something so simple as a handshake is up for examination, what’s next? There has to be some black and white here, ladies and gentlemen. There are much larger issues at stake.

    If someone running for office reveals himself to be an unethical scumbag, then it is safe to assume he will carry that mindset into his service as a legislator. If someone running for office refuses to acknowledge said scumbag as a peer, it is safe to assume he will carry THAT mindset into his service as a legislator. And good for him. Time for a change.

    So if the horrible faux pas of NOT shaking the hand of a lying scum bag is a harbinger of change, then bravo!

  8. Right on Elizabeth.

    Consider the following:

    You just beat an opponent in a tennis match. Everyone always shakes hands after a tennis match. But you give pause to shaking your opponent’s hand this time because 1) he/she just threw their racket at you and 2) he/she is glaring at you like they want to rip your throat out. Do you shake hands?

    Your football team (american) just lost a game. It’s been a long tradition that you shake hands, but you pause to wonder if you should because you were just beaten by a score of 115-0. Your opponents in addition to going for many 2-pt conversions intentionally tried to hurt many of your teammates with illegal hits and face masking whenever the referees were not looking. Do you shake hands?

    Your father has died and generally people show their condolences and respect by shaking your hand after your eulogy. But one gentleman in the crowd was talking during the eulogy, making jokes, and causing distractions. Additionally, you’ve just now heard him denigrate your deceased father with a known lie that is highly disrespectful. He offers you his hand. Do you shake hands?

    Jack, I think you’d answer yes to these situations because it shows you would take the high road. But I fear that if we don’t draw the line somewhere, we only encourage bad behavior. Heck, in the football scenario, if I lost 115-0 fair and square, I’d probably shake hands. But add in the illegal hits and threats to player safety, and there’s no way I’d shake hands.

    In politics, there is no physical contact. There is no games of chance. (Except in Colorado where they did Rock Paper Scissors, or a derivation thereof…) There are only 2 actions in political debates and they are 1) Talk. 2) Shake.

    Talk is very straightforward. Point. Counter-Point. Refute. Enlighten. Advise. Theorize.

    Shake can’t do any of that. The shake symbolizes respect and comes after the Talk. It is a reflection of what has happened, not what will happen. If what has passed has earned respect among the parties involved, a Shake is born. It is a certification and an endorsement of what just happened.

    For Rand Paul to have shaken this man’s hand, he would have been lying. The Shake would have sent the message that he respected and endorsed what just happened.

    Conway’s actions are telling. He either thinks that his indiscretions can be buried with a handshake or he thinks that the handshake is meaningless and simply a good photo opportunity.

    • Tim, you sound very convincing, when you put it like that. And yet. And yet, and yet, and yet. The hypotheticals you mention are as extreme things get in their respective realms, and isn’t there an old adage about extreme cases making poor policy?
      I would not want to see this debate devolve into a “how bad is bad enough that now I get to take the gloves off” sort of thing. Instead, I propose this policy: If someone gratuitously insults me, or otherwise engages in behavior that’s bad, but falls short of being illegal, I man up and take the high road. Smile if it kills me and have a little faith that the voters will be able to see who’s really in the wrong.

      • I will freely admit that I haven’t seen this specific debate and I believe that gives me the independence to discern appropriate action. It very well could be that Rand Paul should have shaken this man’s hand, but that would only be the case where Jack Conway’s deceptions were made apparent.

        If Jack Conway comes across as telling the truth and someone who does no more due diligence can walk away from the debate believing a known falsehood, a line has been crossed. If the debate can stand on it’s own without an epilogue, then certification and respect of the debate should be shown.

        By not shaking hands, Rand Paul sent one more message that I haven’t mentioned. That message is this: “It’s not over.” Not in the vindictive, vengeful sense of the phrase, but in the sense that people who saw and recognized the “faux pas” immediately knew that there was more to the story and that their due diligence was not yet complete.

        Stiffing someone on a handshake isn’t the worst thing in the world. Depending on certain factors, a slap, a fist fight, or a duel might be completely legitimate outcomes.

        (Okay, some of those might be a little dated. For all the Lawyers in the room, we’ll swap “Duel” for “Lawsuit” so you can get paid. I guess there’s nothing worse than a duel where all disputes are settled and no one gets paid. 😉 )

        Stiffing someone on the handshake is the next logical progression in this situation, just below retorting with your own lies. It actually is the ethical high ground.

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