Larry Hufford (left) with Mike Croshaw, head of the Communication Workers of America. Image courtesy of Larry Hufford.
Larry Hufford (left) with Mike Croshaw, head of the Communication Workers of America. Image courtesy of Larry Hufford.

When Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) stated that Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump could not be trusted because he had “small hands,” I was reminded of my own political campaign.

In 1979, I was a candidate for City Council in District 3, the southeast side of San Antonio. 1977 was the first year that Council members were elected by districts rather than city-wide voting. The term from 1977 to 1979 was a very contentious one in San Antonio politics.

As a result of the constant conflicts and votes by the District 3 Council member, local unions felt that they were not being well represented. I met with representatives of the firefighters union, Communication Workers of America and the building trade unions, and they all encouraged me to run for office.

There are numerous stories that any candidate for office can tell, but I want to return to Rubio implying that Trump’s “small hands” were a political liability.

In our culture, a man is expected to have a firm handshake. This is especially true in politics and business. After the campaign was underway, I was sitting in the office of a Southside political figure who was discussing campaign strategy with me.

In the middle of our discussion, he said, “Larry, I want to address your handshake. I hear from men who say you have a good presentation and positions on issues but that they can’t stand your weak handshake. Even I’ve noticed that you have a limp handshake. This is politics. You need to grab a man’s hand firmly and show them that you have a strong grip.”

I replied, “That is great advice, but there is only one ‘small’ problem. I had polio when I was 18 months old, and it left my right hand and arm partially paralyzed, weak and small compared to my left hand and arm. Therefore, I won’t be giving anyone a strong, firm handshake.”

Hufford campaign flyer.
Hufford campaign flyer.

After a moment of silence, he said, “I never realized this was the case. I always wondered why you did not have a strong handshake.”

We continued to discuss campaign strategy when he stopped and said, “I have an idea. When you are addressing a large audience of men, why don’t you bandage your right hand and wrist so that you can have a firm handshake with your left hand.”

I smiled, saying, “I know you have good intentions, but, if I were to do that, what kind of example would I be for anyone with a disability?” He returned my smile and said, “You are right.” I started laughing and said, “I’m screwed, aren’t I?”

Normally that would be the end of it, but I was a candidate for political office. I did not sleep that night, wondering whether I should announce before every campaign speech the fact that I had polio. Ultimately, I decided to say nothing unless I was asked.

Throughout my life, it has been common to see someone I meet for the first time glance down at my hand after the initial handshake. They say nothing, and I do not feel obligated to start the conversation. Those with “bone crusher” handshakes invariably say, “I’m sorry, did you hurt your hand?”

My parents raised me to never be ashamed of my handshake and to never use polio as an excuse not to try something. As a result, I became a left-handed pitcher in high school, college and semi-pro leagues. I was also a lifeguard for three summers. I did, however, fail my Army physical when I was drafted.

I lost the City Council race, but not because of my handshake. The voters re-elected the incumbent, who was more qualified and experienced. The voters decided on issues, not handshakes. They made the right choice. Had I bandaged my right hand to have a firm handshake, I would still have lost.

At least I lost with dignity.

Top image: Larry Hufford (left) with Mike Croshaw, head of the Communication Workers of America.  Image courtesy of  Larry Hufford.

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Larry Hufford

Larry Hufford, Ph.D. is a Professor of Political Science and Graduate Program Director of International Relations at St. Mary’s University.