When the news first trickled out about President Barack Obama’s bow to the King of Saudi Arabia, I rolled my eyes. Really, I thought, are we going to take him to task for every protocol violation?
I don’t like sounding shrill. It turns off moderates. More importantly, it’s my moral obligation to strive for objectivity. If I would make an excuse for George W. Bush or Mitt Romney or Ronald Reagan, after all, then I certainly could not fault Barack Obama. It’s my duty to do my best to hold everyone to an equal standard. Besides, I could see myself, in a moment of confusion, forgetting protocol and bowing to a king.
As far as I was concerned, the bow was a non-issue.
Two things have changed my mind. The first is the contrast between the mainstream press’s reaction to Obama’s bow in 2008 and Clinton’s in 1994. Back then, President Clinton gave a small, from-the-neck bow to the Emperor of Japan. The New York Times weighed in:
It wasn’t a bow, exactly. But Mr. Clinton came close. He inclined his head and shoulders forward, he pressed his hands together. It lasted no longer than a snapshot, but the image on the South Lawn was indelible: an obsequent President, and the Emperor of Japan. Canadians still bow to England’s Queen; so do Australians. Americans shake hands. If not to stand eye-to-eye with royalty, what else were 1776 and all that about? … Guests invited to a white-tie state dinner at the White House (a Clinton Administration first) were instructed to address the Emperor as “Your Majesty,” not “Your Highness” or, worse, “King.” And in what one Administration aide called “some emperor thing,” an Army general was cautioned that he should not address the Emperor Akihito at all as he escorted him to the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery. But the “thou need not bow” commandment from the State Department’s protocol office maintained a constancy of more than 200 years. Administration officials scurried to insist that the eager-to-please President had not really done the unthinkable.
So Clinton was obsequent? (Don’t worry, I had to look that up too. Even Microsoft Word doesn’t recognize it. To be obsequent, it turns out, means to be “submissive” or, better still, to be “obedient.”) The quasi-bow was the unthinkable?
Before we get to the real problem, there’s something else that’s interesting. Obama apparently gave the Queen of England a bit of a head-nod as well. I’m not sure if you want to call it a bow. But if you do, then it sure is interesting that the Queen of our closest ally gets only the barest of nods while the King of a nation which shares no such special relationship with the US and has frequently been at odds with our policies and culture gets such a deep bow.
But there’s something else at stake here, and I have to credit Mark Steyn–a Brit, ironically–for bringing it to my attention. In over 200 years of American history, our presidents have maintained a proud tradition of not bowing to foreign heads of state (with the debatable exception of Clinton, obviously). Now, on a personal level, I mentioned that I could see myself becoming flustered and making a protocol error — but I’m not the president of the United States. I’m a private citizen. Obama is the president of the United States, and that means that he’s carrying on the proud mantle of the oldest constitutional republic in the world. What can be seen as mere oversight on the part of a private citizen becomes something different when it involves our Commander in Chief.
I don’t know why Obama bowed. It’s possible that–like the visit to the Blue Mosque–it was an overture toward Muslims, but I doubt it. I think it’s more likely that it was an subconscious gesture, and that is no comfort to me. Instead of an intentional overture, a subconscious action of subservience indicates that Obama may not value the office of president of the United States of America the way I believe he ought to. Is this a reflection of a president who, perhaps like his wife, has only recently discovered a reason to have any modicum of pride in his nation?
On one final note — I think I know one reason, over and beyond a deep love for the president, that the New York Times won’t touch this particular error in protocol with a 40-foot pole: Calling President Clinton obedient is one thing. Calling America’s first black president obsequent? That would take care of Al Sharpton’s retirement all by itself.
Robert Wallace has been writing for America’s Right since December 2008.