If you want to know how to properly shake a persons hand, follow the lead of a politician as they have mastered the combination of a good grip, perfect posture, eye contact,a smile and a hello.

I have shaken the hands of a few politicians during my radio career and while I don’t ever remember a bad one, the two that I will never forget were from Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel.

Prime Minister Jean Chretien

Shaking the hand of Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien at an event.
Shaking the hand of Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien at an event. (photo by Serge Fournier)

By the time I met Jean Chretien he had already become legendary for the Shawinigan handshake, named after the Quebec town he was born in. He received that label after an incident with a protestor during a Flag Day ceremony in February of 1996. The anti-poverty protestor managed to get right in front of the Prime Minister to complain about changes to unemployment insurance. Chretien gripped the guy’s neck and chin and took him to the ground. After he was done with him, Chretien knocked the megaphone out of the hands of a second protestor. This action took place before his security became involved and arrested the two men. A photo of the incident was front page of every newspaper in Canada the next day.

There was no hand to hand combat when we met at a political fund raiser. I was in a receiving line and waited for him to say hello to others before it was my turn. When he got to me he looked right at me and gripped my hand, which proceeded to disappear into his. I remember thinking wow, this guy has big hands.

If he had been born at another time Chretien, with his height and those hands could have played the wide receiver position for some football team. Or given the Shawinigan incident, perhaps a boxer? He followed all the rules of a good handshake but I honestly thought my hand was being sucked into the portal of a future Liberal convention. (That was a reference to the film Being John Malkovich. In case you didn’t get the joke.) I was intimidated, and it was a peaceful shake.

As he held my hand I think I said something like, ‘I enjoyed your speech and the comments you made that describes your passion for Canada.’ At least that’s what I thought I said. The look on his face though made me think, he either didn’t hear me or I said something else, like ‘can I have my hand back?’ There was a lot of noise in the room at the time. He didn’t stick around to figure it out as his security rushed him into a vehicle.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel

A news conference at Millennium Park in Chicago would announce the James Beard Awards, for the American food industry, were going to be held in the city the following year.

The crowd lit up when Rahm Emanuel made his entrance and many got close to him to say hello. I managed to get within the line of well wishers. Like he’s done thousands of times before, he extended his hand, with good posture and eye contact shook my hand and said hello. I extended my hand and gave him eye contact.

He must have noticed the brief look of shock on my face when I said hello and felt his middle finger pressing on the palm of my hand.

What’s that supposed to mean?

Rah Emanuel at a media event in Chicago.
Rah Emanuel at a media event in Chicago.

My friends and I had greeted each other a few times in high school with that joke handshake, but that was high school. At first I thought it was his way of preventing germs from spreading. To avoid the weirdness, I told him I was from Canada. He responded with a welcome and told me to make sure and spend all my money. We laughed and he proceeded to the podium to give a speech.

I thought about that handshake for the rest of the day. It wasn’t until I did an online search that I discovered the full story about how he lost a portion of the middle finger on his right hand.

He cut his finger at the age of 17 while slicing meat at a restaurant where he worked. One story said, rather than going to the hospital he went to his prom and went for a swim in Lake Michigan.

In a story posted on CNN Emanuel said he had five blood infections, two bone infections and ended up with gangrene. He said the incident made a big difference in his life. He described himself as a screw up to that point, but decided that every day he would make sure to get the most out of his life.