No presidential deed goes unpunished anymore. The latest controversy appears to be whether President Barack Obama should have saluted when he went to Dover Air Force Base to meet the “transport cases” of dead soldiers and DEA agents arriving home.
Carey Winfrey, the editor of Smithsonian magazine, says Obama’s salute was impeccable, but he’s discomforted with the act. He says it was President Reagan who started the practice:
“He had sought advice on the matter from Gen. Robert Barrow, commandant of the Marine Corps. According to John Kline, then Mr. Reagan’s military aide and today a member of Congress from Minnesota, General Barrow told the president that as commander in chief he could salute anybody he wished. And so it began.”
A few years ago, Garry Wills, then a professor at Northwestern, suggested presidential saluting reinforces that the president is commander in chief of everyone.
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. 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.
We used to take pride in civilian leadership of the military under the Constitution, a principle that George Washington embraced when he avoided military symbols at Mount Vernon. We are not led — or were not in the past — by caudillos.
Presidential salutes range “from halfhearted to jaunty,” according to Winfrey.
Perhaps no president saluted more than Billl Clinton.
To the untrained eye — mine — none of those look particularly unappealing. But maybe the key is not in the show of a salute but in the sincerity of what’s behind it. Jack Lucas’ salute here is pretty pitiful, by the standards Winfrey described. He was the nation’s youngest Medal of Honor winner. He lied his way into the military at age 17, then jumped on a grenade on Iwo Jima to save the lives of three others.
“I hollered to my pals to get out and did a Superman dive at the grenades. I wasn’t a Superman after I got hit. I let out one helluva scream when that thing went off,” he recalled in 2008, shortly before he died. How should he have saluted? Any way he wanted to.
Political arsonist Rush Limbaugh is behind this latest “controversy” with his comments on Sunday about Obama. He said Obama’s salute was “a photo op precisely because he’s having big-time trouble on this whole Afghanistan dithering situation,” Limbaugh told “Fox News Sunday.”
Then again, Limbaugh once proclaimed that Michael J. Fox was faking his Parkinson’s.