Why Do Politicians Kiss Babies?

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images / Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

When a politician hits the campaign trail, it’s expected that he or she will press a plethora of palms and embrace a lot of infants. The handshaking makes sense, but the baby-kissing tradition is often an awkward, germy situation for everyone involved. So why does anyone do it?

It turns out there’s precedent for smooching chubby cheeks that goes back to Andrew Jackson, and maybe further. According to a story printed in 1887, Jackson, aware that baby-handling was part of the deal, eagerly grabbed a dirty-faced infant from his mother during an 1833 tour of New Jersey, declaring the tot “a fine specimen of American childhood.” Then he thrust the baby into the face of his Secretary of War, General John Eaton, and said, “Eaton, kiss him.” The secretary pretended to do so, everyone laughed, and the mother had a great story to tell her friends and family. Although there are several anachronisms in this story—the most obvious being that John Eaton had resigned from the position of Secretary of War two years prior—there have been several stories of politicians kissing babies since, including Abraham Lincoln.

Today, politicians believe that showing a softer side can help them win more votes; at the very least, they may sway the doting parent. In return, in a best case scenario, mom or dad can say their child met the future President of the United States. Worst case, it’s a photo op with a famous politician. Not a bad addition to the baby book.

Not everyone thinks baby-kissing is such a great tactic, however. After Benjamin Harrison politely declined to bestow a smooch on one in 1889, suffragist/activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton praised him, and quoted the editor of the New York Tribune, who wrote, “The parent who always expects the baby to be kissed, and the person who feels bound to kiss every baby that comes within reach are equally foolish and obnoxious characters. Children have a right to their kisses as well as older folks. They should not be made the prey of every officiously amiable person in their circle.”

Nonetheless, the tradition continued, even though some politicians expressed distaste for it. Richard Nixon refused to do it, worrying that such stunts would make him "look like a jerk." Geraldine Ferraro, the 1984 Democratic vice presidential candidate, disliked the practice, even once telling The New York Times, "As a mother, my instinctive reaction is how do you give your baby to someone who's a total stranger to kiss, especially with so many colds going around? And especially when the woman is wearing lipstick? I mean, I find that amazing that someone would do that.’’ But she did it to keep the masses happy.

On the flip side, 1968 Democratic presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey defended his affection for children as genuine, stating that being around youngsters after long hours of glad-handing adults left him feeling “refreshed.”

Modern-day candidates are split: Bernie Sanders preferred to avoid baby-kissing, Hillary Clinton does it, and Donald Trump has, too. At the end of the day, as long as politicians think puckering up to a tot will help move the needle, the puzzling practice isn't going away.

[h/t Mother Jones]