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No Tea Leaves to Read in Floor Moment

By Alec MacGillis
WICHITA, Kan. -- It was not a snub.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., greets Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., back to camera, as fellow hopeful, Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill. turns away before President Bush's the State of the Union address before a joint session of Congress, Monday Jan. 28, 2008, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP)

That was the word today from Barack Obama, who said he was taken aback by the suggestion, rampant on cable news shows this morning, that he had deliberately jilted Hillary Clinton on the floor of the Senate last night when she leaned over to shake the hand of Teddy Kennedy, who was standing beside Obama. Photos and video footage of the charged moment show Obama turning away just as Kennedy and Clinton reached across to greet each other. The chattering began almost immediately: Was it a brazen snub by the young senator, in full view of the press gallery where every eye was trained on the encounter? More charitably, was he simply trying to get out of the way of a potentially awkward moment between Clinton and Kennedy, who just that day had spurned her and her husband to endorse Obama?

That was the interpretation offered by David Axelrod, Obama chief's strategist, during an interview on MSNBC this morning. "He knew that Senator Kennedy and Senator Clinton were friends. This was obviously an awkward day from that standpoint, and I don't think he wanted to stand there while Senator Kennedy was greeting Senator Clinton. And I think that was an appropriate sentiment," Axelrod said. "Unfortunately, the camera caught it in a different way, and so it got interpreted that way. And that's the kind of environment we're in right now. It's a very competitive race, so every little thing is going to be interpreted in that way. But it was really a matter of letting Senator Kennedy have his own conversation, his own greeting with Senator Clinton without him hovering over them."

Obama did not mention this dynamic in discussing the moment with reporters flying with him to Wichita today. Instead, he said, he turned away because he was simply turning to Claire McCaskill, the Missouri senator who he said had just called his name to ask him a question.

"I was surprised by the report this morning," Obama said, with the half-weary, half-bemused look he tends to adopt when asked about campaign mini-dramas such as this one. "I was turning away because Claire asked me a question as Senator Clinton was reaching forward. Senator Clinton and I have had very cordial relations off the floor and on the floor." He added that he had waved at Clinton as they were coming into the chamber. "I think there's just a lot more tea leaf reading going on here than people are suggesting," he said.

A few minutes later he spoke more generally about the media's focus on moments such as his turn from Clinton last night, saying that it was unfortunate but that he suspected that it came partly from the fact that there was so much agreement on the issues among the Democratic candidates. "I do recognize there's a lot of overlap between the probably that leads us to comb over gestures and body language," he said.

McCaskill, who is traveling with Obama today to join him on the campaign trail in her home state tonight, backed up his version of the floor encounter. "It was not a snub. I had a ringside seat. It was one of those accidents that just happen and it got caught on film," she said.

She then tied the small storm over the moment to Obama's broader campaign themes. "Everyone's spoiling for a fight, which is the politics of old, and this campaign isn't about politics of old. It's about new. And so it's unfortunate that everyone's so anxious for there to be some kind of problem on a personal level," she said. "I gotta tell you it's just not there, and I hope that you guys correct the impression that somehow there was some kind of attempt on the part of Barack to be in any way disrespectful or impolite. There was a wave, a friendly moment. I was amazed when I woke up this morning. I was part of it and I didn't realize. It's one of those things where all of a sudden it's being blown into something that it just wasn't. We've got lots to argue about but that's not one."

By Washington Post editors  |  January 29, 2008; 1:15 PM ET
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