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Let's (Not) Shake Hands

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This week at the Middle East conference in Annapolis, Md., the Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal refused to shake hands with Israelis, saying that a handshake would only be given when peace is achieved. Brian Burke has been collecting handshake memorabilia since 1975. On his walls he has depictions of handshakes from Roman times all the way to modern day. Currently, he's writing a book about President Abraham Lincoln's handshake. Weekend America host Bill Radke speaks with Burke about some of the handshakes that have helped define our nation's history.

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Bill Radke: What did you think of the Saudi official's characterization of the handshake?

Brian Burke: Well, there are really two ways in which you can look at it. When for instance there is a fist fight or something in a ring. The two fighters shake hands before the match. They hardly do so because they are friendly or because they are going to try to lose. They do so because they are going to observe the rules. It isn't necessarily going to be a friendly fight but at least it will be a legal fight so to speak.

The handclasp can also represent making peace. Often on Roman coins for instance, two emperors were pictures shaking hands and in that handshake they represented the handshake perhaps of the eastern and western parts of the Roman empire.

How did the handshake become this symbolic gesture of peace - the uber photo-op of peace summits?

In the ancient Roman world, the handclasp represented putting your blood behind your breath. That is to say, good faith. And you could use that gesture in any sort of ritual you wanted to.

What are some unforgettable American handshakes?

In the Civil War after Fort Sumter was taken, Lincoln shook hands with Douglas. That was almost the handsclasp that won the war because Douglas was his rival in the rival in the Presidential election. He represented all of the democratic interests in the country and when he shook hands after the taking of Fort Sumter with Lincoln, the new Republican president, he represented to all the faithful democrats in the country that they should support Lincoln and support the Union.

When William Penn shook hands with the Native Americans-- they were the Delaware tribe of Indians--he confirmed the peace and good will of what eventually was the longest standing treaty between Americans and Native Americans. It lasted for almost 75 years. And that certainly has to be one of the best statements of peace and good will of Philadelphia which of course is the "City of Brotherly Love."

Has there been one handshake that's stood out to you personally as being memorable?

Well, I do remember once that I was giving a party for a retired faculty member and he was by my standards a very elderly gentleman and as he was thinking me he held my hand while he was giving me his very sincere thanks. It actually made me feel a little embarrassed and thinking about that. I think I was clasping hands with history there, because I've often seen in the old days the old people would hold hands while they were speaking and that holding of the hands confirmed their sincerity.

Well, if we weren't in different cities I would express my gratitude and goodwill some other way but I'll have to say thanks all the same.

You're quite welcome. I appreciate the opportunity of visiting.

  • Music Bridge:
    Artist: Hans Glawischnig
    CD: Panorama (Sunnyside)


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