Post Castro controversy, White House won't say who Obama wouldn't shake hands with

McClatchy Washington BureauDecember 11, 2013 

The White House called it "unfortunate" that Republicans criticized President Barack Obama for shaking hands with Cuban president Raul Castro -- saying there was once a time when politics ended at the water's edge.

Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. criticized Obama, likening the gesture to Neville Chamberlain's handshake with Adolf Hitler at the start of World War II.

"It gives Raul some propaganda to continue to prop up his dictatorial, brutal regime, that's all," McCain said in an audio clip recorded by Todd Zwillich of The Takeaway radio program.

Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Obama "shook hands with everybody who was on the stage, and Mr. Castro was one of those individuals who was on the stage."

He called comparisons to Hitler "a dangerous and usually unwise thing" and said there once was a principle that partisan politics stops at the water's edge.

"It's unfortunate that we did see a number of Republicans yesterday who criticized the president for a handshake at Nelson Mandela's funeral," Earnest said. "That is an important progression in a number of politicians' views on that topic."

Earnest said Obama and Castro spoke just briefly and Obama didn't bring up the release of a jailed American contractor, Alan Gross.

"They didn't have a robust, substantive conversation about policies, but rather exchanged some pleasantries as the president was making his way to the podium," Earnest said. "There was not an opportunity for the president to chronicle many concerns about human rights abuses on the island of Cuba. The president did not have the opportunity to say to him, directly, something that he said many times, which is that Alan Gross should be released."

Earnest said he didn't know if Obama had discussed with staff beforehand what to do when he encountered Castro.

And he wouldn't say which world leader Obama would not shake hands with.

"That's a difficult hypothetical to entertain," Earnest said. "I'd decline to do it at this point."

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