WASHINGTON — A confounding and perhaps divinely inspired Inauguration Day tradition is coming to an end: Handshake Man says he can’t make it to the celebration Jan. 20.
President-elect Barack Obama will miss that special greeting experienced by Bill Clinton at his second inauguration and George W. Bush at his first: An overcoated, entirely normal-looking man, whose only security clearance is his beatific smile, steps from the crowd after the swearing-in. He offers the new commander in chief a handshake, a medallion and a message from God.
The Rev. Richard C. “Rich” Weaver — dubbed Handshake Man by followers of his exploits — has been Washington’s most famous uninvited guest. Now in his early 60s, he has reached out and touched six presidents and countless senators. He was the ultimate man-without-a-ticket and the scourge of the Secret Service and Capitol Police.
Now he’s on the phone from Southern California, where he lives. “I have decided to not do any more with presidents,” he says.
Also: “I’ve got one more year where I’m not allowed to go to Washington,” he says.
That’s right. Caesar’s law finally caught up to the free spirit who always said he listened to God first. But Weaver says he still has a divine message for Obama. He’s just not going to be able to deliver it in person. Maybe a Washington Post reporter will do.
It was at Bush’s second inauguration in 2005 that the Capitol Police finally got their man. Officers had been ordered to memorize Weaver’s face from pictures, and he was busted at a checkpoint near the House-side entrance to the Capitol. Weaver pleaded guilty to misdemeanor unlawful entry and was sentenced to unsupervised probation. He was barred from trying to attend presidential events or entering the Capitol and White House grounds for five years.
Then last week, Weaver says, he was watching television when another message from God came to him. “The glory of the Lord has departed from the Democratic Party,” Weaver says, reading from the message. “You have chosen a secular messiah. … You will see the Democrats take America farther down the road to insecurity.”
Tough words, and Weaver says he’s a little uncomfortable delivering them. He says he personally appreciates the positive vibe he feels in race relations since Obama was elected. “I just like the guy,” he says. “I wouldn’t vote for him; that doesn’t mean he’s a bad guy.”
But a message of God must not be edited, he says.
Over the decades, Weaver has ministered to athletes and politicians through organizations he founded. He has pictures of himself with Clinton and both Bushes. He met Jimmy Carter.
At his sentencing in 2005, he said Secret Service agents had told him: “You’re no problem to us, but you’re making us look bad.”
No comment from the Secret Service on whether it will retire Handshake Man’s picture from its inaugural security briefings. “We don’t discuss cases of a protective intelligence nature,” spokesman Malcolm Wiley said.