How Candidates Kissing Babies Became A Major Part Of Us Political Campaigns
For years, presidential candidates have sought to project a kind, nurturing image by posing for pictures kissing babies on campaigns. When election season comes around, there are some clichés presidential candidates can’t help but reach for as they seek to form a bond with potential supporters. Candidates will talk about their humble origins, stump speeches will be delivered on factory floors and on coffee shops – and candidates will pose for pictures kissing babies. This last one may be among the most well-worn political clichés in the US.
The psychological appeal is obvious: It helps candidates show prospective voters a softer, nurturing side – away from the image of resolute commander-in-chief they will seek to strike elsewhere.
It’s such a well established part of political campaigns in the US and across the world that few pause to ask its origins. But a dig into US political history reveals that’s its a convention that can be traced back to at least 1833, and Democratic president Andrew Jackson.
During a tour of the eastern states, Jackson - a pioneer of populist electioneering stunts - was approached by a woman carrying a baby. The woman told Jackson that she wished to see the president, so he removed his hat and introduced himself. The woman then handed the grubby-faced infant to Jackson, who held up the child. “Ah! There is a fine specimen of American childhood. I think, madam, your boy will make a fine man some day,” Jackson declared. But when it came to the task of kissing the infant, Jackson delegated the job to his Secretary of War, John Eaton. “Eaton, kiss him?” commanded the president, which Eaton, with a comical and wry expression, did – to the amusement of onlookers.
It was with Jackson’s successor, Martin van Buren, that the tradition really took off – and soon prospective leaders were clamoring to be seen with infants.
“History fails to record the name of the politician who first adopted the above method of gaining the favor of mothers. Henry Clay, Tom Corwin, and Van Buren did a good deal in that line; and Davy Crockett boasted he had kissed every baby in his district,” the magazine Babyhood reported in 1886.
But not all presidents have taken to the tradition, seeing the practice as a cheap stunt. Richard Nixon told Life Magazine in 1968 where he drew the line when it came to electioneering. “I won’t wear a silly hat, or kiss a lady or a baby,” he said, claiming that he feared such stunts would make him “look like a jerk.”