I can't stop looking at Darren Garnick's slideshow over at Slate of his infant daughter, Dahlia, in the arms of all the presidential candidates he could get close enough to take a picture with. Sure, photos of candidates with babies are a dime a dozen, and I'm sure that if I looked at 20 photos of the same candidate with 20 different babies, I'd have 20 different impressions. But there's something about this series of all of them with the same baby that I find totally captivating.

And, okay, even after I've made the case for some measure of vagina voting, this might be the girliest thing you'll ever hear me say: looking at how the candidates hold a baby (something I've never really done, precisely because these photos ARE a dime a dozen) does indeed influence the way I think about them.

It's not the kind of influence that will affect my vote, mind you, because I happen to think most of the Republican candidates -- and hell, even Chuck Norris, in a bonus photo -- look uncharacteristically human and rather adorable with her. And if I were basing my vote strictly on Dahlia-holding photos, I'd be a Kucinich supporter, hands-down; he looks like he's truly enjoying the moment, and it's incredibly charming. (Really, really, incredibly charming, apparently. Garnick himself says about Kucinich, "Even though I'm politically right-of-center, consider me a reluctant fan.")

I can't help snorting a little at the fact that Dahlia screamed bloody murder in the arms of both Giuliani and McCain, but damn if they aren't cute pictures anyway. Rudy coos soothingly at her, and McCain just looks like, "Hey, what are you gonna do?" (Also, like "I'm a cuckoo dum-dum ha ha ha!" but that was to be expected.) Neither one looks flipped out in the least.

I mean, I suppose if you're a politician, one of the first things you learn is never to look flipped out in a picture of you holding a baby; it looks bad enough already just that the kid is screaming bloody murder. But, like, take a look at Richardson. Garnick notes that Dahlia was totally at ease in his arms, but Richardson himself doesn't look all that comfortable. In fact, I didn't know until I read the text accompanying the slideshow that he's the only candidate without kids, but it doesn't surprise me a bit from the photo. He's probably amassed more baby-holding experience in his political career than I have in my entire life, and yet, you can still see it -- the stiffness in his arms, the "Please don't let me drop this thing" look in his eye.

I've gotten familiar with those characteristics in recent years, as my friends have started having babies, and I've realized that other friends my age (not to mention some of the new parents, though they get over it quickly) have no experience whatsoever with holding them. I don't have kids of my own, but I've been a nanny, a day care worker, and for the last 14 years, an aunt; I've long since grown perfectly comfortable with the fact that babies usually don't fall out of your arms -- and if they do, what the hell, they're mostly made of cartilage.* So it always surprises me to see people in their late twenties and older holding babies as if tilting them 10 degrees in one direction might set off the detonator.

Which brings me to the thing that captivates me most about this slideshow: all of the candidates -- with the exception of Clinton and Richardson, for their respective obvious reasons -- look like dads. Perhaps that shouldn't be surprising, given that they all are, but I'm just old enough not to automatically think it's totally normal for dads to be comfortable with babies. Right after my brother's oldest kid was born, my family and my sister-in-law's family visited all at the same time. My dad, who's crazy about babies, made a beeline for my niece, to the shock of my sister-in-law's mother. She turned to my mother and said, "Did you see that? He just walked in and picked that baby right up, like it was nothing!" Mom shrugged and said, "Yeah, he had four of his own." Like, what was the big deal?

The big deal was, my sister-in-law's dad, despite having had 3 of his own and at that point, 6 other grandchildren, was still not one to just pick up a baby like it was nothing. Picking up babies was for women. He'd get around to touching them when they were older and less fragile.

He and my dad are both around McCain's age, less than 10 years older than Kucinich and Giuliani (and Chuck Norris). And sadly, in that age group, I don't think my sister-in-law's dad was necessarily the weird one.

So I have to admit I'm utterly charmed to see all these men handle a baby with such aplomb, even if I know it's part of their jobs. (Granted, Obama's younger than two of my siblings, and Edwards and Huckabee are much closer to their ages than my dad's. But still.) Clinton, despite all her ladyness, actually looks like the least happy of the bunch to be holding the little nipper -- though in fairness, Garnick does admit Dahlia's diaper was wet at the time of that photo.

And Clinton still does something that only three other candidates (Obama, Kucinich, and Giuliani) do: looks at Dahlia's face, instead of at the camera. You might expect it of Obama, who has the most recent experience with a baby of his own -- but then, Edwards is a very close second, and he simply tucks the kid into one arm, like the old pro he is, and offers a big, shiny grin for the photographer. (Of course, Edwards has been at it a hell of a lot longer. As the youngest of four with a big gap in the middle very much like his family's, I can tell you that no matter how much my dad still loves babies, the novelty had bloody well worn off by the time I came along.) I have to say, those pictures in particular impress me. Edwards, Huckabee, McCain, Romney (who, despite his ample dad and granddad experience, kinda looks like he might accidentally strangle the kid), and even Richardson -- oh yeah, and Norris -- all look cheerful enough about it, but the ones who actually look at the baby? Seem like they're having a real, human moment, not just a standard-issue photo op. Even Giuliani, sort of.

Obama, who in the first picture holds Dahlia at just 7 weeks (and greeted her with "Ooooh, a new one!") looks gentle and curious; Giuliani looks like he probably can't wait to hand her back to her dad, but in the meantime, he'll at least engage; Clinton looks irritated that her arm is getting pee-stained, but like she's interested in Dahlia, even if she wants to kill Garnick for handing over a wet baby. (And Dahlia looks totally fascinated by her, so one can assume Clinton was probably looking friendlier a moment before this was taken.) Finally, Kucinich looks like he's having an absolute blast and would play with her all day if he could.

Why do those reactions impress me so much? Well, because I freakin' love babies. In spite or because of the day care, nannying, and aunting experience, I'm not a huge fan of small children, and I'm still undecided about whether I want any of my own. But babies? Are awesome. If they didn't become kids, I'd have a dozen of 'em.

And that's because hanging out with young, pre-verbal, pre-crawling babies is about the purest human connection you can get. Not "pure" in the sense of innocent and unspoiled and all that other kids-are-teh-awesum propaganda that's somehow supposed to make my biological clock tick louder when I hear a rugrat screaming, "I WANT THE GREEN ONE! THE GREEEEEEEEEN ONE!" in Starbucks -- but "pure" in the sense of being seriously stripped down to the core. 'Cause really, the only thing an unrelated adult and baby have in common is that they're human. We can't totally understand each other's languages, much as we try; we don't have any shared experiences of the world (or at least, the adult can't remember the similar experiences s/he's had); we certainly don't have political views in common. And yet, we find ourselves equally compelled to snuggle and stare at each other and try to comprehend what's going on in this strange other person's head.

So it's extremely cool to see politicians in the middle of campaigning -- of spinning and calculating and backstabbing and backpedaling and never saying a word that won't be scrutinized to death -- have that kind of pure, unaffected moment of connection. It's almost as if they're real people or something. Even Giuliani, sort of.

Or, you know, I might just be a big, fat, girly sap. (Hils, call me!)

*Yes, I am KIDDING.

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