The Washington Times - December 11, 2013, 09:35AM

Sen. Bill Nelson downplayed President Obama’s handshake with Cuban President Raul Castro, saying that all the hoopla over the greeting has been overblown and that it was not a big deal, given that it happened at a memorial service for Nelson Mandela.

“For those who want to stay in that ideological box, it will get them all lathered up,” Mr. Nelson, Florida Democrat, said on MSNBC’s “The Daily Rundown.” “It is much ado about nothing.”

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Mr. Obama came under fire from Florida Republicans with Cuban roots after images of the controversial handshake emerged.

Sen. Marco Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants, said the president should have asked Mr. Castro “about those basic freedoms Mandela was associated with that are denied in Cuba.”

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, another Cuban-American from South Florida and former chairwoman of the House Foreign Relations Committee, pressed Secretary of State John F. Kerry about the handshake during an unrelated hearing Tuesday on Capitol Hill.

“Mr. Secretary, sometimes a handshake is just a handshake, but when the leader of the free world shakes the bloody hand of a ruthless dictator like Raul Castro, it becomes a propaganda coup for the tyrant,” Mrs. Ros-Lehtinen said.

Mr. Nelson, though, said that people should put it in the historical context of other presidents who have reached out to “brutal dictators — like the Castros.”

Mr. Nelson also said that people should recognize that the focus of the day was celebrating the life of Mr. Mandela.

“You don’t want to act in a way — as the leader of the free world — in an affront, which would be an affront to the memory of Nelson Mandela,” he said. “So I agree with the president.”