Tales from the Trail

To salute or not to salute, that’s Obama’s question

December 24, 2008

Barack Obama went to a gym at a military base in Hawaii the other day and did something positively Reaganesque — he returned a Marine’s salute.
 
In so doing, he wandered directly into the middle of a thorny debate: Should U.S. presidents return military salutes or not?
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Longstanding tradition requires members of the military to salute the president. The practice of presidents returning that salute is more recent — Ronald Reagan started it in 1981.
 
Reagan’s decision raised eyebrows at the time. Dwight Eisenhower, a former five-star general, did not return military salutes while president. Nor had other presidents.
 
John Kline, then Reagan’s military aide and now a Minnesota congressman, advised him that it went against military protocol for presidents to return salutes.
 
Kline said in a 2004 op-ed piece in The Hill that Reagan ultimately took up the issue with Gen. Robert Barrow, then commandant of the Marine Corps.
 
Barrow told Reagan that as commander in chief of the armed forces, he was entitled to offer a salute — or any sign of respect he wished — to anyone he wished, Kline wrote, adding he was glad for the change.
 
Every president since Reagan has followed that practice, even those with no military experience. President Bill Clinton’s saluting skills were roundly criticized after he took office, but the consensus was he eventually got better.
 
The debate over saluting has persisted, with some arguing against it for protocol reasons, others saying it represents an increasing militarization of the civilian presidency.
 
“The gesture is of course quite wrong: Such a salute has always required the wearing of a uniform,” author and historian John Lukacs wrote in The New York Times in 2003.
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“But there is more to this than a decline in military manners,” he added. “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.”
 
Garry Wills, the author and Northwestern University professor, echoed those remarks in the Times in 2007.
 
“The glorification of the president as a war leader is registered in numerous and substantial executive aggrandizements; but it is symbolized in other ways that, while small in themselves, dispose the citizenry to accept those aggrandizements,” he wrote.
 
“We are reminded, for instance, of the expanded commander in chief status every time a modern president gets off the White House helicopter and returns the salute of Marines.”
 
What do you think? Is returning a salute a common courtesy? Or should Obama reconsider the practice?
 
For more Reuters political news, click here.

Photo credit: Reuters/Hugh Gentry (Obama waves after leaving a gym at a Marine Corps base in Hawaii Dec. 23); Reuters/Pool (Bush salutes at a ceremony in New York Nov. 11)

Comments
26 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

I agree with General Barrow’s take; entitled, as a sign of respect, to anyone you wish. Sometimes, courtesy & respect trump protocol. Semper Fidelis.

 

The return of a military salute by a President is his display of respect for the military. It may not be a part of military protocol, but it should be recognized as a positive gesture, no matter how perfect or imperfect the rendering of the salute may be. I remember passing an elderly gentleman in Arlington Cemetery one day while I was in my USMC uniform in 1963. He whipped a perfect salute to me, which I returned to him. It just happened to be His Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I, King of Ethiopia. It was at that time that I realized the enormity of respect for the military uniform here and around the world. That is what the “salute” is all about. Possibly the protocol should be updated.

Posted by Barbour | Report as abusive
 

As a 21 year retired USAF veteran, I disagree with historian John Lukacs’ statement that a salute has always required a uniform. There is no prohibition on presenting a person dressed in civilian clothing with the customary military sign of respect, the hand salute. He is correct if he was try to infer that the SALUTE is required when in uniform. The President represents the highest level of command for American military personnel. There is no requirement to return a salute when not in uniform….though as a sign of respect, it is appropriate.

Posted by MikeA | Report as abusive
 

As an ex-Air Force enlisted and ex-Army Chief Warrant Officer, I think it should be the prerogative of the President whether s/he wants to return a salute or not. Some times you have something in your hands, other times you might be distracted, some times you’re in a good, upbeat mood, and some times you’re not. If s/he does, s/he does, if s/he doesn’t, s.he doesn’t. But if a salute is returned, it should be done properly, not casually. It should be done from an erect position (like attention). The salute is the traditional military greeting, it should be done according to the rules.

Posted by Larry | Report as abusive
 

As a veteran of the Vietnam War, I believe it to be perfectly acceptable for the President – or – President Elect, to return a military salute. The salute should, however, be done appropriately.

Posted by Tom Lanagan | Report as abusive
 

For whom would this possibly be an issue? The President is the Commander in Chief, and a salute in all of its forms is a sign of respect. Those that choose to respect the military and the inherent principles of selfless service stand in sharp contrast to those that loathe the notion of military honor. Perhaps I answered my own question…..

Posted by Mitch | Report as abusive
 

Why is this even an issue? If President-elect Obama wants to return a salute that is rendered to honor him and his office then that is entirely appropriate. One hopes that if he feels encouraged to return the salute that he practices a little beforehand.After all, if he awards the Medal of Honor to a distinguished soldier, it is certainly appropriate for him to salute the recipient. So you see, here is one place that the civilian can salute.One wonders if President Eisenhower saluted any Medal of Honor recipients if and when he presented the award. Maybe some old film from such a presentation can be dredged up somewhere.

Posted by Chuck Hawkins | Report as abusive
 

Since President- Elect Obama has been so negative and vocal about the Irag war , it seems to me a salute is a badly needed sign of respect for the very troops he hasignored up to now!!

 

I have many family members who were/are in the armed forces and it seems only appropriate to me that should they salute their commander out of respect, that the commander return the gesture in thanks for their service and sacrifice.

Posted by Anna | Report as abusive
 

I believe that if a president wishes to return a salute, that s/he should do it properly. Bush’s duck & wave is a disgrace!Obama should hold off until the 20 Jan. As he has said, there is no office of the President-elect.

Posted by david_42 | Report as abusive
 

.The argument of the total supremacy of the Civilian over the Military is not without it’s merite.courtesy and given respect are important too ,the president can only salute the flag , as s/he wishe he can salute the presidential guard of wich he is direct commander .While in the military the custom was to give salute in the morning only , to emphasise the ceremonial nature of the tradition and that no tradition should get in the way of business ..

Posted by j.guerin | Report as abusive
 

It’s a sign of respect. Opinion of the legitimacy of the war should not be a factor in the respect for the troops who serve. It is irrelevant to the truth of their service and sacrifice. If I was president, especially if I thought a conflict should be ended, I’d use that signal to tell them it is.

Posted by Sharon | Report as abusive
 

R.E.S.P.E.C.T. Any president coming into office that has not served should be trained to perform the salute in a manner in which the armed services would be comfortable with… it’s a courtesy, but much more… it’s about Respect.

 

Raised in a military family, I understand the protocol regarding who salutes who and when. I would like to see the President(s) show respect for the protocal and the military by NOT saluting! DDE knew better and he was a “real” soldier.

Posted by hoolietta | Report as abusive
 

Was prepared to be irritated when I recently saw POTUS ascending the helicopter and did not return the salute of the Marine guard. Now I understand the multiple facets of the issue. There should be a clear policy so that the “right wing loonies” don’t have a tizzy claiming he’s disrespecting the salute by not returning. I’d vote for no salute return in keeping with de-militarizing of the Presidency.

 

I do not think a President who has never served in the military to salute any soldier, let alone any human for that matter.

 

I’m a Viet Nam vet 1967, I was taught that if you are not in uniform your not suppose to salute. As for the president if he returns a salute in respect for the uniform I do not have an issue with that, even though he is not suppose to. I do object to the president especially a president in civilian cloths to salute the bodies of dead soldiers returning from war. he suppose to place his hand over his heart in respect for the war dead or any military who died in any conflict or tragety while in uniform. The current president does not know any better becuase the numb nuts advising him are’nt any better. Recently the president Obama saluted dead soldiers coming off of an plane fron Iraq and saluted. he should have asked if that was proper. he should have had his hand over his heart, we know he does not have a brain

Posted by georgeargo | Report as abusive
 

I’m a Viet Nam vet 1967, I was taught that if you are not in uniform your not suppose to salute. As for the president if he returns a salute in respect for the uniform I do not have an issue with that, even though he is not suppose to. I do object to the president especially a president in civilian cloths to salute the bodies of dead soldiers returning from war. He suppose to place his hand over his heart in respect for the war dead or any military who died in any conflict or tragety while in uniform. The current president does not know any better becuase the numb nuts advising him aren’t any better. Recently the president Obama saluted dead soldiers coming off of a plane fron Iraq and saluted their coffins. He should have asked if that was proper. He should have had his hand over his heart, we know he does not have a brain

Posted by georgeargo | Report as abusive
 

Well, O bows to any foreign official he finds. Might as well salute our military.

Posted by SeenMyPaw | Report as abusive
 

I’ve thought all of the saluting presidents, from President Reagan on the Obama look out of place. I’m a retired Naval Officer and was trained not to return a salute in civilian clothes. I lived on base and was saluted by the Marine Corps guards frequently, but no one returned the salute. The protocol was to acknowledge the salute verbally with a greeting.
There were many presidents before Reagan with much more serious military experience who never saluted while in office. I’m surprised G.H.W. Bush didn’t end this practice, but I guess the shadow of Reagan was just too strong.

Posted by NukeRun | Report as abusive
 

I don’t care if it goes against military protocol, for a president to return a salute. It is a matter of respect! IT SHOWS RESPECT! Saying it goes against protocol for a president to return a salute would be like saying a general shouldn’t return a salute to a private or something…..it is a matter of respect to the people who risk their lives for our country.

Posted by toajaller99 | Report as abusive
 

Either way is fine. I think every soldier is taught one doesn’t salute out of uniform (or indoors unless under arms, not on a flightline or in enemy range, etc.) But the last protocol of saluting I was taught in Basic, “When in doubt, Salute!”

Posted by LaughingVulcan | Report as abusive
 

In the end it does not matter that much, the President is the Boss of the Military. People will bash a President no matter what they do. In my view some people need to get a life.

Posted by CappsofMD | Report as abusive
 

Let’s spend a lot of energy fretting over something that matters very little.

Posted by NoYouAre | Report as abusive
 

It is proper for the military to salute the President. Yes, he is the commander in chief, but the military serves the civilian government and I think that is a better reason. I do not think it is proper for the President to return the salute.

Posted by Thomassen | Report as abusive
 

Kind of stupid article. Standards are constantly revised, just as Reagan informally revised the “standard” or raised the expectations of presidents. When I was in the military, while in civilian clothes, we had the option of rendering the military salute or civilian salute for the National Anthem for a period of time. Later, it was revised to only permit the civilian salute. Some older people in the service thought standing at attention was enough. Maybe that was the written standard at one time? These things change so often, and it probably only happens more often nowadays than in the past, as records become electronic instead of hardcopy.

Posted by SHIIRI | Report as abusive
 

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