President Obama arrives in East Granby, Conn., to talk about increasing the federal minimum wage, March 5, 2014.
Jessica Hill/AP

The political world falls for dumb ‘controversies,’ Part XXXVII

Updated
President Bush does his best to salute while holding his dog Barney as they get off of Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., Monday, June 25, 2001.
President Bush does his best to salute while holding his dog Barney as they get off of Air Force One at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., Monday, June 25, 2001.
Susan Walsh/AP Photo
When the right start hyperventilating about President Obama’s awkward salute yesterday, it seemed like the kind of mindless story that would shine bright but burn out quickly. Apparently, however, it’s not quite done.
A backlash is brewing after a video emerged showing President Barack Obama holding a coffee cup while saluting Marines. The White House Instagram account posted footage of Obama offering the informal salute as he climbed down from Marine One after landing in New York for the United Nations General Assembly. Criticism soon spilled over on Twitter.
Naturally, because the right considers this The Most Important Story On Earth, a wide variety of news organizations are treating it as a legitimate “controversy.” Even by the low standards of our 2014 political discourse, this is pretty depressing.
 
But it’s not just a media problem. Beltway Republicans have suggested the “Latte Salute Election” may be a worthwhile 2014 theme, and the National Republican Congressional Committee has even launched a fundraising campaign, urging donors to hand over money because the president saluted Marines while holding a coffee cup.
 
Yep, this is what contemporary politics has come to.
 
And while the debate – if we use the word loosely – about this nonsense serves no real purpose except giving Republicans an excuse to question the president’s patriotism, there are two related angles that are actually somewhat interesting.
 
The first is an ongoing pattern in which the political world holds President Obama to a standard unlike his predecessors. It’s not as if other recent presidents weren’t photographed making awkward salutes – see the image included above – but the difference is the media and the president’s critics didn’t consider it important, and Democratic campaign committees didn’t use it as the basis for an election.
 
When other presidents issue executive orders, it’s fine. When Obama does it, Republicans insist it’s scandalous.
 
When other presidents rely on “czars,” it’s fine. When Obama does it, Republicans insist it’s scandalous.
 
When other presidents make recess appointments, it’s fine. When Obama does it, Republicans insist it’s scandalous.
 
When other presidents decide not to defend certain federal laws against court challenges, it’s fine. When Obama does it, Republicans insist it’s scandalous.
 
Other presidents have bowed when meeting foreign heads of state. They’ve tried terrorist suspects in federal courts. They’ve played plenty of golf. They were photographed wearing casual attire in the Oval Office. They’ve made awkward salutes. But when this president has done the exact same things, his detractors have turned the meaningless incidents into controversies.
 
I’m all for holding Obama to high standards. I just wish he wasn’t held to a different standard than other presidents.
 
But even if we put that aside, what’s up with these salutes in the first place? A friend of mine, I believe her name is Rachel Maddow, wrote a bit about this in her best-selling book. From page 36:
White House military aides saw a lot of [President Reagan], which perhaps bred a certain amount of familiarity, which could be why one aide, John Kline, wondered aloud if maybe Ronald Reagan was doing something out of line. Kline noticed that his boss was saluting members of the armed forces. Soldiers were supposed to salute their president; the president was not supposed to salute the soldiers.
 
No modern president, not even General Eisenhower, has saluted military personnel. It might even be, well, sort of improper.
 
Kline suggested he talk to the commandant of the United States Marine Corps and get his advice, and the commandant’s advice ran something like this: You’re the goddamn president. You can salute whoever you goddamn well please. So Ronald Reagan continued saluting his soldiers, and he encouraged his own vice president and successor, George H.W. Bush, to do the same. And every president since has followed.
Garry Wills wrote in 2007, “Dwight Eisenhower, a real general, knew that the salute is for the uniform, and as president he was not wearing one. An exchange of salutes was out of order.”
 
Also note, in 2012, the right briefly went nuts because Obama saluted while holding a phone, and in 2013, some reporters were outraged when the president briefly forgot to salute as he boarded Marine One.
 
Sometimes it seems as if the Beltway really needs better things to do .
 

Barack Obama

The political world falls for dumb 'controversies,' Part XXXVII

Updated