The New York Times – Cup in Hand, Obama Stirs Dispute: Should Presidents Salute?

The New York Times – Cup in Hand, Obama Stirs Dispute: Should Presidents Salute?

President Obama’s social media team has touched off a cascade of criticism among service members and civilians alike over a video posted to the White House’s Instagram account that showed him saluting a pair of Marines with a cup in his hand. For veterans of a military that prides itself on discipline and strict adherence to protocol, it was careless at best and disrespectful at worst. 

Coming at a time of trouble in veterans care and the start of new military operations in the Middle East, the video handed fuel to critics. 

“It’s not like they were caught by TMZ,” said Paul Rieckhoff, the executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “They posted this on their own Instagram page. His whole team screwed up thinking this was O.K.” He said that the incident was, ultimately, dumb, but that it illustrated the disconnect between civilians and military members throughout the country. 

Presidents generally did not salute uniformed military personnel until Ronald Reagan, who, when he took office in 1981, felt uncomfortable when troops saluted him and he didn’t return the gesture. A general told him that since he was not in uniform himself, he was not supposed to salute back. But the Reagan aide Michael Deaver recalled in his memoir that he told Reagan, “You can do whatever the hell you want, you’re the commander in chief.” 

From then on, Reagan regularly saluted, and his successors have generally followed his example. 

But the issue is not without controversy. Some have gone as far as to call the act, which is required by soldiers in uniform, an unseemly exaggeration of the president’s military role. 

Garry Wills, a professor emeritus of history at Northwestern University, said that presidents should show pride in America’s civilian leadership. Modern presidents, he said, should follow the lead of President Dwight D. Eisenhower and remain “at ease.” 

“Dwight Eisenhower, a real general, knew that the salute is for the uniform, and as president he was not wearing one,” Mr. Wills wrote in The Times in 2007. “An exchange of salutes was out of order.” 

Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, responded to the criticism Wednesday morning on MSNBC. 

“The president has the highest amount of respect for men and women in uniform, and he has the highest amount of respect for the men and women who are responsible for operating the presidential helicopter,” Mr. Earnest said, noting that there were “countless” images of the president saluting service members.

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