Well, who knew how dirty politics could get:
By MARK LEIBOVICH
WASHINGTON, Oct. 27 — Campaigns are filthy. Not only in terms of last-minute smears and dirty tricks. But also as in germs, parasites and all the bacterial unpleasantness that is spread around through so much glad-handing and flesh-pressing.
“You can’t always get to a sink to wash your hands,” said Anne Ryun, wife of Representative Jim Ryun, Republican of Kansas.
I wish they made a sanitizer for my ears and eyes. Every time Bush and his ilk open their mouths I have to run outside for a breath of fresh air.
Like so many other people involved in politics these days, Mrs. Ryun has become obsessive about using hand sanitizer and ensuring that others do, too. She squirted Purell, the antiseptic goop of choice on the stump and self-proclaimed killer of “99.99 percent of most common germs that may cause illness,” on people lined up to meet Vice President Dick Cheney this month at a fund-raiser in Topeka.
When Mr. Cheney was done meeting and greeting, he, too, rubbed his hands vigorously with the stuff, dispensed in dollops by an aide when the vice president was out of public view.
That has become routine in this peak season of handshaking, practiced by everyone from the most powerful leaders to the lowliest hopefuls. Politics is personal at all levels, and germs do not discriminate. Like chicken dinners and lobbyists, they afflict Democrats and Republicans alike. It would be difficult to find an entourage that does not have at least one aide packing Purell.
Some people find that unseemly in itself.
“It’s condescending to the voters,” said Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, a Democrat.
A fervent nonuser of hand sanitizer, Mr. Richardson holds the Guinness Book of World Records mark for shaking the most hands over an eight-hour period (13,392, at the New Mexico State Fair in 2002).
Indeed, what message does it send when politicians, the putative leaders in a government by the people, for the people, feel compelled to wipe off the residues of said people immediately after meeting them?
“The great part about politics is that you’re touching humanity,” Mr. Richardson said. “You’re going to collect bacteria just by existing.”
Still, politics can be an especially dirty place to exist.
“Every time you’re with big groups of people, you’re going to be exposed to rhinoviruses, adenoviruses and the viruses that cause gastroenteritis,” said Senator Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican and physician.
Mr. Coburn said he washed his hands whenever possible but did not use any antigerm lotions. Being a doctor, he said, he has been exposed to more bugs and, thus, enjoys greater immunity than most other people.
For what it is worth, Howard Dean, also a doctor and the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said he did not bother with the stuff, either.
“If you’ve had children, you’re immune to everything,” said Mr. Dean, a father of two.
As with most things, this places Mr. Dean at loggerheads with President Bush.
“Good stuff, keeps you from getting colds,” Mr. Bush raved about hand sanitizer to Senator Barack Obama, Democrat of Illinois, at a White House encounter early last year.
Mr. Obama, who recounts the episode in his new book, says that after rubbing a blob of it on his own hands, the president offered him some, which he accepted (“not wanting to appear unhygienic.”)
Mr. Obama has since started carrying Purell in his traveling bag, a spokesman said.
It is not clear when politicians became so awash in the gel. In one semifamous cleanliness lapse in the 1992 presidential campaign, Bill Clinton, who had just shaken dozens of hands at a tavern in Boston, was handed a pie but no fork on his way to the car. The ravenous Mr. Clinton promptly devoured it using his unwashed hand. He eventually became a serious user of hand wipes and lotions at the urging of his doctor, an aide said.
Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, said he learned about hand sanitizer from observing Senator Bob Dole’s abundant use of it in his 1996 presidential run. Mr. McCain remains vigilant today.
“I use it all the time,” he said through a representative. “I carry it with me in my briefcase.”
Purell, which is made by GOJO Industries of Akron, Ohio, came on the market as a consumer product in 1997 and became popular in campaign vans, holding rooms and traveling bags in the 2000 campaign. Donald Trump, the billionaire germophobe who contemplated running for president, even distributed little bottles of it to reporters.
“One of the curses of American society is the simple act of shaking hands,” Mr. Trump wrote in his book “Comeback.” “I happen to be a clean-hands freak.”
Al Gore is, too. He turned his running mate, Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, onto sanitizer in 2000, and Mr. Lieberman became an evangelist.
“He said it was one thing he learned from Gore,” said an aide to Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, Rebecca Kirszner, who became a popular dispenser of Purell on a senatorial trip to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
Mr. Richardson said that if he ran for president, as he is considering, he had no intention of conforming to the norms of his antiseptic peers.
“I just won’t use the sanitizer,” he said. “I’ve been offered it, but I’ve turned it down.”
This positions Mr. Richardson as the early hygienic maverick of 2008.
“I’m not afraid to get my hands dirty,” he said.