MIDWAY: The new cuddly king

Forget Carla Bruni-Sarkozy. The new focus of cultural affections is King Juan Carlos of Spain. Everybody wants to get their hands on him - in the nicest possible way, of course. First, there was the Spanish goalkeeper and captain of the national team, Iker Casillas, who cast aside royal protocol in the jubilation attendant on Spain winning Euro 2008 and enthusiastically embraced the king.

The monarch then proceeded to hug various other members of the team during the subsequent celebrations back in Madrid. And now Venezuelan president and strongman Hugo Chavez has announced his intention to give Juan Carlos a hug when El Commandante visits the country on July 25, despite their spat at the Latin American summit last year when the king told the argumentative president to shut up.

Of course, ever since the days of the medieval Florentine court, a hug from a politico has been at least as likely to serve as the occasion for a knife between the ribs as it has a spontaneous gesture of affection or forgiveness — the only difference these days is that the dagger is metaphorical and usually less immediately lethal.

Still, a bear hug from Boris Yeltsin on the campaign trail always carried the suggestion that he was prepared to crush the life out of anyone secretly pondering the wisdom of mother Russia. In another time and place, a hug from Bill Clinton could have all sorts of unfortunate ramifications. How Monica Lewinsky, as the bile and vilification heaped up around her, must have kicked herself for not insisting that the formal handshake would suffice as an introduction.

The most famous presidential-monarchical embraces, however, have come from Australian prime ministers, who can barely keep their hands off the ruler of the Commonwealth. In 1992,

premier Paul Keating placed his arm across the Queen’s back, ostensibly to guide her to her seat but, as any fool knew, in fact to signal to the world Australia’s seething republican sentiment.

John Howard pulled off a similar trick at Canberra’s Parliament House a mere eight years later. Can the return of the dagger, one must ask, be far behind? Cuidate, Juan Carlos, cuidate!