Why Do Parents Hand Their Babies to Politicians?

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All that can come of it are germs, crying, and the exploitation of the child as a political prop. But there's a way to end the madness.
baby with obama.jpg

While vying for the presidency, Andrew Jackson once visited a town where, "according to a campaign tale, a proud mother handed a dirty-faced baby up for him to hold." Paul F. Boller recounts what happened next in his book Presidential Campaigns:

"Here is a beautiful specimen of young American childhood," said Jackson obligingly. "Note the brightness of that eye, the great strength of those limbs, and the sweetness of those lips." Then he handed the baby to his friend John Eaton.

"Kiss him, Eaton," he cried, and walked away.

This is supposedly the first documented instance of a politician being handed a baby to kiss. I suspect the practice dates back even farther. What is certain is that it has happened enough in the years since that it's now a cliche. Life magazine explained the phenomenon in its July 4, 1960 issue: "There is only one excuse for baby kissing: it works. The aim, whether the pol is a machine-backed hack or a machine-bucking amateur, is to win the votes." So it goes today. It works to hold babies, so politicians regularly do it, and who can blame the for fulfilling their role?

Still. If the demand for small, cute little humans to hold is understandable, the steady supply of them is puzzling, isn't it? I'd kiss babies if I were running for office. But were I possessed of a child, as a father or even a babysitter, I'd never dream of handing my little bundle to a politician.

What is wrong with these parents?

Envision the candidate in the crowd. People are pressing around him in a circle or crowded up against a barrier. Who takes a baby in that crush to begin with? But never mind that. The pol has recently stepped off a stuffy plane or bus. He is now shaking countless hands, one after another. And vulnerable little infants are entrusted into the arms of this germ covered stranger? He is, beyond the germs, a plausible target for assassins and pie-wielding activists. And he has your child!   

Then there is the creepy propaganda dimension.

What politician is thinking: Can I be photographed holding your baby so that I can co-opt its aura of innocence? It would be very helpful in my bid to persuade irrational voters that I am trustworthy, likable and empathetic.
What parent is thinking: What was that? I can't process it, for I am star struck by your celebrity, and I'd like to tell people you kissed my baby. Here. Hold it. Don't even worry about how filthy your hands must be.

That's pretty much what's going on, right? So I wouldn't smile, like the people in the photos above, if I saw some cute baby in a politician's arms.

I'd react like this guy:

baby w bush.jpg

 

And I think most babies grasp that something unpleasant is happening in these situations. Why am I in the arms of this stranger with unusually white teeth, they say to themselves, looking away with disdain:

baby romney.jpg

Often the negative reaction is even more pronounced:

baby cries bush.jpg

Babies are put through this... to what end?

Lest you think I am complaining without offering a solution, I've thought long and hard about a way forward. A way to wrest America's children from the arms of men reasonably likely to disgrace themselves. Pols kissing babies being as American as apple pie, I figured I'd look to the socialists of France for a contrast, and I found this shot of French Socialist Party presidential candidate Segolene Roya:

baby french socialist.jpg

Zero helpless infants were infected, traumatized or exploited in the making of that emotionally manipulative moment.

Image credit: Reuters
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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