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Extending a handshake [Commentary]

Symbols are meaningful in politics. Sometimes, a gesture as simple as a handshake can resonate with tremendous importance.

For me, the most important handshake in American history occurred in China on February 21, 1972.

By way of background, John Foster Dulles — President Dwight Eisenhower's secretary of state and a staunch anti-communist — refused to shake Chinese leader Chou En Lai's hand at a conference in Geneva in 1954. He later quipped that the only time he'd meet with Chou would be if their cars accidentally collided.

Jump ahead 18 years, and President Richard Nixon — President Eisenhower's vice president and a credentialed anti-communist in his own right — was planning his historic overture to China. When Air Force One landed in China, Chou was standing on the tarmac personally waiting to greet Nixon. Nixon insisted he and his wife be the first to depart the plane, and ordered the Secret Service to block the exit until he had deplaned and personally delivered the overdue handshake.

It was great theater, and Nixon knew it. He also understood that the handshake signaled a break from past policies he helped advocate and shape.

All of us who are engaged in politics hope we have a chance to witness such an important historical moment.

Last week, in a purely Maryland political context, some of us did.

First, some history: In 1994, then-Congresswoman Helen Delich Bentley battled then-House of Delegates Minority Leader Ellen Sauerbrey for the GOP gubernatorial nomination. Once allies, the contest between the two women became very heated and competitive.

At the time, conventional wisdom was that Ms. Bentley would win by virtue of her stature in the party as well as her status as the state's senior GOP congresswoman. But Ms. Sauerbrey's right-leaning campaign message resonated with the kind of conservative voters who typically vote in GOP primaries, and she won rather decisively.

At a subsequent unity breakfast, Ms. Sauerbrey extended her hand to an emotional Ms. Bentley, who famously swatted it away — twice — before shaking it. Ms. Sauerbrey went on to lose the 1994 gubernatorial election by less than 6,000 votes. The relationship between the two women appears to have remained frosty ever since.

That is, until Friday.

I attended Baltimore County Councilman Todd Huff's fundraising event at Oregon Ridge that night. Both Ms. Bentley (for whom I once worked) and Ms. Sauerbrey were there. The latter's presence was especially interesting in that many of the other current and former elected officials at the event could best be described as political moderates, whereas Ms. Sauerbrey has always been a darling of the party's conservative wing.

In any event, at one point in the evening, Ms. Bentley shuffled over to Mrs. Sauerbrey, said "Nice to see you Ellen," and extended her hand. And Ms. Sauerbrey shook it without reservation.

Those of us who remembered the fractiousness of 1994 were surprised by this small, spontaneous gesture. It created a bit of buzz throughout the room. Sadly — and I checked with Councilman Huff's campaign manager — no photo exists of this rapprochement.

Of course, a handshake is sometimes just a handshake. Is there any symbolism to be found in this moment of comity between two past political foes?

Well … maybe.

The 2014 primary season looks to be competitive not just at the gubernatorial level, but in various local and legislative races across the state.

Some of the races — Del. Steve Schuh vs. Anne Arundel County Executive Laura Neuman, Sen. Rich Colburn versus Del. Addie Eckhardt, Sen. David Brinkley versus Del. Michael Hough, Sen. Steve Hershey versus former Del. Richard Sossi, Councilman Todd Huff versus Del. Wade Kach — have the potential to get very nasty.

This year's current crop of candidates can learn a lesson or two from Ellen and Helen and make nice now, instead of in 20 years. Perhaps that will prevent things from spiraling out of control in their own races.

No one gained anything politically from the great feud of 1994 (except maybe Parris Glendening). Winning a political battle is pointless if, in the process, you've become too damaged to win the war.

Richard J. Cross III is a former Capitol Hill and Annapolis press secretary and speechwriter. He resides in Baltimore, and blogs at http://rjc-crosspurposes.blogspot.com. His e-mail address: rcrossiii@comcast.net.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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