President Obama criticized over 'latte salute'

President Obama criticized over 'latte salute' Credit: @WhiteHouse / Instagram

Some issues that take on life briefly in the media these days are so trivial that one hesitates to resurrect them once they've reached the end of their natural lifespan, which is ordinarily about the same as a mayfly's.

Still, long after we stop hearing about these issues, I fear that they enjoy a ghostly afterlife, prodding prejudices and preconceived notions further in the wrong direction.

The idea that President Obama is anti-American or anti-military achieved a little more leverage recently from his inadvertent "latte salute." As Obama exited Marine One, his salute with a coffee cup in his hand, returned to two attending Marines at the bottom of the steps, was admittedly casual, considerably removed from the best military practice.

But intentionally insulting? Ed Rogers, blogging on the Washington Post website, raises that possibility. And he asserts that Obama "knew what he was doing. President Obama was striking a pose." The fact that this assertion is implausible to the point of nonsense doesn't prevent its achievement of some credibility with those who are already disposed to criticize Obama.

The latte salute was red meat to Fox News, of course, whose commentators were shocked, appalled and disgusted by the lack of respect for the military displayed by Obama. But if you're interested in "fair and balanced," consider Jon Stewart's Daily Show riff on Fox's phony indignation over an issue that, Stewart asserts, Fox commentators don't really care about, except as a weapon to attack a president they don't like.

Let's concede that the salute was too informal and nonchalant. Nevertheless, context is called for. Saluting by presidents is a modern phenomenon, begun by the ostentatiously patriotic Ronald Reagan. Prior to Reagan, presidents didn't return salutes, not even General Eisenhower.

In fact, when I joined the Navy, one of the first things they told us young recruits was that in the Navy - the Marine Corps is part of the Navy - you never salute unless you have your hat on. So according to that version of saluting tradition, hatless presidents shouldn't be saluting anyone in the Navy and Marine Corps to begin with.

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And the second thing we learned was that we humble enlisted sailors were not in a position to criticize the returned salute, no matter how casual, of anybody in the Navy who ranked higher than we did, which was everyone, up to and including the Commander in Chief.

But if the political right strains to put the darkest spin on Obama's careless salute, let's stretch this issue in the other direction for a moment and celebrate the remarkable fact of civilian leadership of our armed forces. Obama is not a soldier or sailor, never has been, and that's not a bad thing. In our society the military does not drive policy or ideology but is, rather, a powerful arm controlled by civilians on behalf of the rest of us civilians.

We owe our soldiers, sailors and Marines a lot.

But it's important to remember that few institutions are more undemocratic and hierarchical than the military, an organization that sacrifices its own democracy to protect our nation's. No American institution puts more value on rank and tradition and their attendant ceremonies. In fact, the military exalts principles that are essentially non-American and, ironically, our soldiers and sailors sacrifice some of their freedom and equality in service of ours.

President Obama may be the Commander in Chief, but he's first and foremost a civilian. He has to operate both inside the undemocratic military bubble, which exalts hierarchy and the privileges and honors of rank, and American civil democracy, which is solidly founded on the equality of every American citizen.

After hundreds of exits from Marine One and Air Force One, if the President flubs his role a bit, give him a break. An inadvertent, sloppy salute no more indicates a lack of respect for the military than a ramrod-stiff, exquisitely executed salute implies a lack of support for the essential equality of all Americans.

John M. Crisp, an op-ed columnist for McClatchy-Tribune, teaches in the English Department at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas.


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