I know you're a busy man, President Obama, but could you maybe hold that latte (or hot tea) in your other hand for a second? This seems to be the question circling what I will call Lattegate, an incident on Tuesday in which Obama raised a cup towards, rather than saluted, two Marines as he descended the stairs from Marine One. Some have damned the Instagrammed video as a disrespectful gesture, while others have defended the slip-up as an innocent matter of being preoccupied (with a hot beverage). Was it Obama's finest moment? Probably not. Was it the worst thing that happened today? Again, probably not.
The faux pas occurred as the president landed in New York City, where he was scheduled to appear at the United Nation's Climate Change Summit. With his sunglasses on and his latte, tea, whatever he drinks in hand, Obama looked around him as he emerged from the helicopter. As he approached the two waiting soldiers, he gave them a rather half-hearted salute. The move stood in stark contrast to the Marines' crisp positioning — whereas Obama's, er, gesticulation, looked more like he was wiping sweat from his brow than recognizing the Marines, the officers stood at sharp attention, as is customary when greeting the president of the United States.
But as Smithsonian magazine editor and former marine Carey Winfrey first pointed out in a 2009 op-ed for the New York Times, the history of the presidential salute is nebulous, at best. Civilian presidents, those who never served in military duty, are not required to return a salute. Then again, the president isn't just any civilian — he's the commander in chief, and technically, the head of the entire military branch.
But without the proper training as to how exactly to execute a salute, perhaps it's best to just leave it out altogether. At least, this is what Winfrey insinuated, when he wrote,
...whenever I saw a president stepping off a helicopter and bringing hand to brow...None of [the salutes] fulfilled the characteristically succinct prescription that Capt. Jack O’Donnell of the Marine Corps delivered, in 1963, to my platoon of freshly minted second lieutenants at basic school in Quantico, Va.: “Your salute,” he pronounced, “must be impeccable..."
While the salutes, Winfrey noted, "ranged from halfhearted to jaunty," they simply weren't the precise motions that were taught to true members of the American military forces. And even Ronald Reagan, who is thought to be the first to normalize the presidential salute, was unsure about protocol. After all, Winfrey recalls being expressly forbidden from saluting when not wearing his military uniform, and American presidents are rarely seen out of a suit.
To answer his burning questions about saluting etiquette, Reagan turned to General Robert Barrow, commandant of the Marine Corps. Supposedly, Barrow's response was that Reagan "could salute anybody he wished." For Reagan, it seems, that meant absolutely everybody. This was initially seen as strange, as no president before him, even Dwight Eisenhower, a five-star general, ever saluted while in office. But after Reagan, there was a new tradition in Washington — to return military salutes.
But Obama doesn't seem particularly beholden to tradition — I mean, he is the first African American president in our 238-year history of white men leading the country. And once you break one big tradition, you might as well break the little ones as well, right?
This isn't the first time a president has been criticized for a subpar salute. According to Reuters, Bill Clinton was "roundly criticized" for his bad salutes during his administration, although he did make significant improvements towards the end of his tenure. And Obama is no stranger to saluting scrutiny either, and has come under fire before for failing to salute, or salute correctly.
Last May, Obama did not salute the marine guarding the steps of Marine One. Seeming to realize his omission, a video shows the president coming back down the steps to shake the marine's hand. They chat briefly, then Obama continues on his merry way, all without ever completing a salute. The world kept spinning then, and it'll probably keep spinning this time too.
Of course, while this certainly isn't a matter of life and death, much of the criticism surrounding Obama's sloppy salute stems from its poor timing. Just hours before the incident, American pilots began airstrikes on Syria, marking the first time that the United States has officially engaged with ISIS within the country. Given that members of the military were so recently deployed, a bit of symbolic respect for the servicemen who were present would have been appreciated. At least, it wouldn't have drawn (negative) attention.
The salute, a Marine Corps officer candidate manual says, is "the most important of all military courtesies." Though it also recognizes that "in some situations, the salute is not appropriate," such as when a person is "carrying articles with both hands" — which Obama was not — "or being otherwise so occupied as to making saluting impractical," the figurative importance of the salute is certainly nothing to be ignored.
And unfortunately for the president, no one is ignoring the fact that he seemed to ignore it.