The handshake

THE HANDSHAKE…. It’s early Monday, and you know what that means: time for a new coordinated conservative tantrum. The freak-out over the Department of Homeland Security and domestic threats is so last week. The new fit is over President Obama shaking hands with the President of Venezuela at the Summit of the Americas.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich tore into President Barack Obama Monday for his friendly greeting of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, saying Obama is bolstering the “enemies of America.”

Gingrich appeared on a number of morning talk shows comparing Obama to President Jimmy Carter for the smiling, hearty handshake he offered Chavez, one of the harshest critics of the United States, during the Summit of the Americas. […]

Two Republican senators, Judd Gregg of New Hampshire and John Ensign of Nevada, joined in the criticism Monday, with Ensign calling Obama’s greeting of Chavez “irresponsible.”

Obama apparently expected the excessive whining, and noted over the weekend the “great differences” he has with Chavez, including the Venezuelan president’s “inflammatory” rhetoric and his unhelpful role in Latin America.

“It’s unlikely that as a consequence of me shaking hands or having a polite conversation with Mr. Chavez that we are endangering the strategic interests of the United States,” Obama told reporters. “I don’t think anybody can find any evidence that that would do so. Even within this imaginative crowd, I think you would be hard-pressed to paint a scenario in which U.S. interests would be damaged as a consequence of us having a more constructive relationship with Venezuela.”

That, of course, doesn’t matter. Gingrich & Co. need a new meme, and they settled on this one over the weekend.

What I find odd, though, is the underlying message. Leading Republicans make it sound as if America’s stature is so fragile, it is easily weakened by casual courtesies at an international forum. President Obama, in contrast, acts as if America’s stature is strong, and can withstand a handshake with a foreign head of state. Since when does the GOP find it useful to promote the idea of American weakness?

Obama added, “We had this debate throughout the campaign, and the whole notion was, is that somehow if we showed courtesy or opened up dialogue with governments that had previously been hostile to us, that that somehow would be a sign of weakness — the American people didn’t buy it. And there’s a good reason the American people didn’t buy it — because it doesn’t make sense.”

Sensible or not, White House critics are hyperventilating today. One Fox News personality said Obama and Chavez were “fist bumping and making lovey dovey.” Another said the two presidents were “sittin in a tree…K I S S I….”

You can watch the video — and the body language — of Obama’s brief exchange with Chavez; the two shook hands but did not appear close. Sometimes, U.S. presidents meet foreign leaders we’re not fond of, and sometimes, relations between two countries improve.

Really, though, it doesn’t matter. The U.S. president was photographed shaking hands with the twice-elected head of state of a large South American democracy at a forum for hemispheric leaders. That’s it. That’s the whole story. That’s what has Republicans screaming today. It’s painfully absurd.