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?
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.
“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?
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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)