February 28, 2023
I was going to write another heavy duty current events data analysis column, but then I got distracted and/or lazy, so this essay is going to wander off to a more fun topic.
When I saw the headline that senator Diane Feinstein (D-CA) had finally announced she would retire in 2025 at age 91, I got to thinking about just how slowly the Democrats’ old white leaders have been put out to pasture to make way for the diverse next generation of politicians.
Joe Biden, who hopes to stay in office until he’s 86, is only the most obvious example of the Democrats’ recent tendency toward white gerontocracy, perhaps out of fear that its nonwhite politicians still aren’t ready for the big stage.
This pattern first became visible in highly diverse California. In 2016, the five most important California Democrats were Feinstein (then age 82), governor Jerry Brown (78), senator Barbara Boxer (76), representative Nancy Pelosi (76), and party chairman John Burton (83): an average of age 79.
Finally, in 2017, Boxer retired and was replaced by golden girl Kamala Harris, who was quickly affirmative-actioned into the vice presidency. But she’s proven a dud, leaving the Democrats with no graceful way to ease Biden into retirement after one term (which might have been Old Joe’s reason for picking her all along). Indeed, among the new generation of California Democrats, Gavin Newsom, the extremely white governor, now appears more plausible presidential timber than the hapless veep.
I was going to assemble a huge amount of data on this question and tell you what I’d found, at length.
But while looking up examples of just how many eons Biden has been around—he entered the United States Senate a half century ago in 1973, serving with six solons born in the 1800s, including Sam Ervin (1896–1985), the Foghorn Leghorn-like star of that year’s Watergate hearing—I got diverted by the question of how far back into history you could go with the fewest handshake links.
What are handshake chains?
Back around 1900, a popular vaudeville song was “Let Me Shake the Hand that Shook the Hand of John L. Sullivan,” the last heavyweight bareknuckle boxing champion. In those days, people were apparently fascinated by the thought of being linked to the famous via a series of handshakes. This likely helps explain why on New Year’s Day 1907, over 8,500 members of the public lined up and shook the hand of president Theodore Roosevelt (which is the most 1907 thing I can imagine: Picture a sped-up silent movie of Teddy vigorously pumping the hands of the citizenry).
This obsession may sound strange today, but it’s rather like how Americans in 2000 were into playing the parlor game Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon to find the shortest path connecting another actor with the Footloose star via mutual appearances. For example:
John Wilkes Booth appeared in an 1863 production of ‘Macbeth’ with Louisa Lane Drew.
Louisa Lane Drew appeared in an 1896 production of ‘The Rivals’ with her grandson Lionel Barrymore.
Lionel Barrymore –> ‘Right Cross’ (1950) –> Kenneth Tobey.
Kenneth Tobey –> ‘Hero at Large’ (1980) –> Kevin Bacon.
Granted, the concept of handshake chains is silly, reminiscent of “Weird Al” Yankovic’s song “Lame Claim to Fame”:
I had a car that used to belong
To Cuba Gooding Jr.’s uncle
A friend of mine in high school
Had jury duty with Art Garfunkel
Yet, the handshake chain concept has been forgotten for so long that it’s amusing to revive it.
Perhaps its most enthusiastic 21st-century proponent was English journalist Alistair Cooke (1908–2004), who liked to tell young visitors, “You have just shaken the hand of a man who shook the hand of a man who shook the hand of Lincoln.”
Cooke’s intermediary with Honest Abe was Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. (1841–1935). Soviet spy Alger Hiss (1904–1996), who clerked for Holmes in the late 1920s, became fascinated by how his boss linked him to so many famous names of the 19th century, such as John Quincy Adams (1767–1848), who in turn knew George Washington (1732–1799) and Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790). Hiss called it the Great Span.
Similarly, Winston Churchill (1874–1965) marveled in his 1930 autobiography that when he was a boy, prime minister William Gladstone (1809–1898) recounted to him that he remembered the bonfires celebrating victory at the battle of Waterloo in 1815.
That got me thinking: How quickly can I link myself to Churchill and thus to Gladstone in 1815, 208 years ago?
I think the goals of the handshake chain game should be to get the furthest into the past to the most famous historical characters by the fewest links. Obviously, these hazy criteria don’t allow objective winners, but they make playing more fun.
The most famous person I shook hands with was Margaret Thatcher (1925–2013). She no doubt shook hands with Queen Elizabeth II (1926–2022). If you can trust The Crown (which, of course, you can’t), they may not have gotten along, but they still did meet weekly.
(By the way, I had been under the impression from how King Charles III characteristically walks with his hands behind his back that royals don’t shake hands. Indeed, Princess Anne still doesn’t shake the hands of random people in crowds on “walkabouts,” but the royals have long shaken hands with those to whom they’ve been properly introduced. The late queen may have clasped hands with more people famous in the English-speaking world than anybody else in history. Her all-purpose greeting was: “Busy as ever?”)
You can quickly get from Elizabeth II to almost everybody prominent over the past 100 years, such as Churchill.
But I might be able to cut out the queen. It’s quite possible that Thatcher met Churchill when she ran for Parliament as a Conservative in 1950 and 1951, when Sir Winston was the Tory leader. Thatcher caused a bit of a sensation as a mid-20s blond, so it wouldn’t be unlikely for Churchill to have introduced himself to his party’s only woman candidate. On the other hand, I can’t find any photos online of the two together, so I can’t say for sure.
The most effective handshake connector is somebody like Churchill or Holmes: a famous individual who was socially energetic into old age, and who started meeting famous people very young either as a child prodigy or due to being raised in a socially prominent family.
And it helps to be an extrovert: e.g., Bill Clinton probably shook far more hands than Barack Obama, who has spent much of his life slipping off by himself for a quiet smoke.
Speaking of Waterloo, how few links can it take to get to Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821)? Physicist Freeman Dyson (1923–2020) liked to point out that his grandfather had shaken the hand of an old lady who as a young girl had shaken the hand of the Emperor in Moscow in 1812.
Or consider that you probably aren’t that many handshakes away from Paul McCartney (b. 1942), who has been one of the most popular (and gracious) people on earth for almost sixty years.
In the mid-1960s, McCartney knocked on the door of the 92-year-old philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872–1970), who then persuaded the Beatle to oppose the Vietnam War. Earl Russell was a handshake-chain super-connector because he was a Victorian aristocrat, mathematician, pacifist activist, and recurrent figure in the newspapers into his mid-90s in Swinging Sixties London.
As a small child, Bertrand lived with his grandfather John Russell (1792–1878), a former prime minister, who had had a lengthy meeting with Napoleon on Elba on Dec. 24, 1814.
(Of course, much more real than handshake chains are teacher-student chains. The most famous is Socrates to Plato to Aristotle to Alexander the Great. Recently, several academic fields have taken to documenting their “academic genealogies,” linking students to their dissertation advisers and other mentors. For example, the Mathematics Genealogy project reports that John von Neumann’s teacher’s pedigree can be traced back to Gauss and Leibniz.)
So, myself to Thatcher to (possibly) Churchill to Gladstone in 1815 is my lame claim to fame.