By Jim Heffernan
The military takes its salutes seriously. True military men (and presumably women, too, but I didn’t serve directly with any) go to great lengths to perfect the salute so that it looks just right: the correct angle of the arm from the elbow to the brow, the perfect flat hand position with thumb and fingers tight and straight.
The Sunday New York Times (Nov. 1) ran a commentary by guest writer Carey Winfrey (“A Final Verdict on the Presidential Salute”) in which the writer, an ex-Marine, passed on President Obama’s salute, calling it “impeccable in every way.”
I’m glad for Obama. This might seem like a trivial thing, but people who know a little something about saluting – that’d be everyone serving or who has served in the military – notice things like the way the commander in chief’s salutes.
It’s surprising how difficult it can be to get it right. President Bill Clinton was never able to pull off snappy, admirable salutes as he alighted from his helicopter on the South Lawn, or anywhere else, for that matter.
So what? A lot of military types resented it. It helped to dilute his implied authority as commander in chief. On top of which he was a Democrat, and true military men (and presumably women, too) often are suspicious of Democrat presidents. I had voted for Clinton, but I winced every time I saw him salute knowing how our warriors would react.
I think George W. Bush’s greatest achievement as president was his salute. Like me, he’d done time in the National Guard, so there was that military background. I am a moderately good saluter. Saluting doesn’t come naturally to me but I can put on a good show. On active duty you had to salute to get paid, so you catch on fast.
But President Clinton, and now Obama, never served in the military, so saluting is bound to be more of a challenge. I’m glad Obama’s salute passes the muster of the New York Times, but we’ll have to see about the Wall Street Journal. Fox News? I don’t think so.
Here’s something I didn’t know until I read The Times commentary: President Ronald Reagan started all of this presidential saluting. Presidents before Reagan didn’t salute, just like they don’t ordinarily wear uniforms even though they are in charge of he armed forces. Bush (W.) did wear one to announce “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq in 2002. You wonder if that flight suit will find its way to the Smithsonian. Maybe after the war is over.
Reagan, if memory serves, was a pretty snappy saluter. Of course he’d served in the military during World War II – on the 20th Century Fox lot in Hollywood making training films. If you’re going to star in military training films, you’d better know how toss off an effective salute. It’s not that important for a commander in chief of the armed forces of the United States.