By now, many of us have seen the short video clip of President Obama raising his coffee cup in return to the Marines’ salutes at the steps of the Marine One helicopter. There has been a certain amount of indignation about this, and in fact, a Reuters article from December 2008 that was written by David Alexander looks at this very issue. Not specifically about Obama, of course, but the general practice of a president returning the salute of troops under his command.
It’s true that no president had historically saluted the troops. Not even Dwight Eisenhower, who was a retired General of the Army. Ronald Reagan started the practice in 1981 just after becoming president. He didn’t just start doing it, though; he asked the advice of General Robert Barrow, who was then Commandant of the Marine Corps, whether it would be appropriate. This evidently set lots of the news media atwitter with comments and criticism. Even as recently as 2003, John Lukacs, writing for the New York Times, wrote, “The gesture is of course quite wrong: Such a salute has always required the wearing of a uniform. But there is more to this than a decline in military manners. There is something puerile in the Reagan (and now Bush) salute. It is the joyful gesture of someone who likes playing soldier. It also represents an exaggeration of the president’s military role.”
I beg to differ. While the Reuters article made some good points, I think it failed to address the most important point. Contrary to what John Lukacs wrote in the NYT, it’s not a matter of whether or not the president likes to play soldier. The president is the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, and although he doesn’t wear an official uniform, the reality is that whatever he’s wearing is his uniform, whether it’s a suit with tie or more casual clothing. General and admirals, by law, have to obey his commands. So does everyone else who serves in the military. The practice of presidents not returning salutes before Reagan’s inauguration has now become irrelevant. Reagan did it, and although no president since that time had to continue doing it, they all have. Therefore, it’s pretty well been established as precedent over the past 33 years that the president will return the salute of a uniformed member of the armed forces. When he does, it should be more than a mere wave of a styrofoam coffee cup. When Obama did that, it was an insult not only to the two Marines standing there at attention saluting him, it was an insult to everyone who wears, or has ever worn the uniform.
But could we have expected any differently from Obama?