There has been much said about Rep. Michele Bachmann’s behavior at the State of the Union the other night. Earlier this week MPR’s All Things Considered crew was looking to talk to somebody about protocol. They spoke to Letitia Baldrige, who served as the social secretary to the White House and chief of staff for Jacqueline Kennedy.
They also put out a message to Pamela Eyring at The Protocol School of Washington. She didn’t get back to MPR in time to do a taped interview, but responded to some questions via email after she watched a tape of the post-SOTU events.
-Having watched the video, was there anything inappropriate there?
The Protocol School of Washington teaches that you should refrain from hugging or kissing the President of the United States or any other Head of State. A proper handshake is universally accepted and prevents perception issues such as this one.
-What is the proper protocol when addressing, interacting with the President of the United States?
The President should be addressed as “Mr. President” in conversation. You should be dressed appropriately for the interaction and behave respectfully (whether you voted for him or not). I remember managing two of President Bush’s visits when I was the Chief of Protocol at Wright-Patterson AFB in Ohio. The first time President Bush visited, the Secret Service wouldn’t allow us past a certain barrier, so we waved to him and he waved back. The next time he visited on the 4th of July, I had the opportunity to shake his hand after the event. It was a wonderful feeling to be thanked and greeted by the President. Although I was very excited to meet him, I refrained from giving him a hug. (I think the Secret Service appreciated it.) Proper protocol dictates that you address the in-office President as Mr. President, but not a former President. As a courtesy, many people address a former President as Mr. President, and that is acceptable.
-When is it appropriate to interact with the President as with a close friend?
It can be a great experience when the President of the United States is your close friend. However, you must respect his position and authority by interacting with him in a professional manner in public.
-When is it appropriate to kiss the President of the United States?
When you are his wife…! It appeared to me in the video clip that the President initiated the kissing of both women. To some, receiving a hug or an air kiss by the President is a wonderful gesture, but to others, it could be perceived as unwanted.
-Was this one of those times?
I would suggest refraining from kissing during this time because it could be filmed and misinterpreted.
-Was that an appropriate kiss?
If you are going to kiss the President, an air kiss on the cheek is much better than on the lips!
-Was there anything inappropriate in the way she was touching the President?
Whatever her motive for keeping her hand on the President, I go back to my first rule – refrain from touching or hugging the President.
-What kind of training, instruction do people receive before interacting with the President?
Unfortunately, hardly any instruction is given to the public (a good example is the young women from the soccer team wearing flip-flops…). The Protocol School of Washington and our graduates coach many national and international officials, celebrities, and corporate executives on proper greetings, attending White House ceremonies and dinners, and Presidential visits. The U.S. Department of State’s protocol office and the Protocol and Diplomacy International (PDI) Association are also excellent resources.