President Obama's deferential bow on Saturday to Japanese Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko has many Americans wondering whether such a greeting is appropriate for the leader of a free nation that does not recognize distinctions among individuals based on class or birth.
In April, President Obama bowed to the Saudi king during the G-20 meeting. At the time, Obama’s deferential bow was somewhat obscured, and the White House insisted that the president simply had leaned forward to shake the king’s hand.
But the president's recent demonstration of royal deference to the Japanese emperor and empress suggests his earlier action was no aberration.
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What should we make of this? Is it trivial to worry about what on its face could easily be interpreted as nothing more than a polite gesture by our president to respect the culture of a country?
America was founded on republican virtues — small “r,” that is. Like the French Republic, our nation does not recognize royalty or social rank, especially from officials of the republic.
The conduct of our president when he deals with foreign leaders is a serious matter. After all, he represents the American people and our Constitution.
Indeed, when President Obama bows before a foreign leader, the whole country bows with him.
It is difficult to grasp what President Obama’s motives are for bowing to foreign royalty (it would be nice if a reporter asked his press secretary Robert Gibbs why he does it).
But Obama’s motives do not really matter when we consider his behavior.
What matters is how the rest of the world will interpret his actions. When it comes to bowing before foreign leaders, there is a fine line between showing politeness and servility, between respect and weakness.
The United States leads the free world, and it goes without saying that our president as commander in chief is duty bound to protect the nation, and our allies by treaty. He should act in such a way that strengthens, not weakens, his position.
If we as American citizens wonder about how our president should act with foreign leaders when he meets with them in person, let us look to the history of the United States for guidance.
First, there is our cherished Constitution. When the Founding Fathers wrote it, they made abundantly clear their distaste of the hereditary forms of government that then dominated Europe.
Article I, section 9 of the U.S. Constitution states: "No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States: And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince or foreign State."
As the nation’s first constitutional leader, President George Washington set the tone. When it was proposed that he be called “His Highness the President of the United States of America and the Protector of Their Liberties,” Washington scoffed at the idea and demanded he be called simply, “Mr. President.”
No president better exemplified the republican virtues of the country than Thomas Jefferson, who had a purely American disdain for the pretensions of royal power which he believed were not legitimately derived from the people.
As he stated so eloquently in the Declaration of Independence, power was not derived from bloodlines or royal coronations. Instead he argued that since “all men are created equal” a government should exist by “deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
Jefferson’s breezy indifference to the English monarchy was on display during his first days in the White House.
When the monarch’s new ambassador to the United States called for the first time to present his credentials he was not required to bow in front of the nation’s sovereign. In accordance with American values, he was assumed to be an equal, not a subject.
And so all he had to do was walk up to the White House and knock on the door (there were no guards or royal attendants).
Once he was beckoned inside, "a tall, high-boned man came into the room. He was dressed, or rather undressed, in an old brown coat, red waistcoat, old corduroy small-clothes much soiled, woollen hose, and slippers without heels. I thought him a servant,” said the visitor, “when General Varnum surprised me by announcing that it was the president."
According to the historian Henry Adams, the casual dress and easy-going manners of the new president were more important than they might seem at first glance.
“The seriousness of Jefferson's experiments in etiquette,” Adams observed, “consisted in the belief that they were part of a political system which involved a sudden change of policy toward two great powers. [They] were but the social expression of an altered feeling which found its political expression in acts marked by equal disregard of usage.”
The British ambassador and other diplomats to the United States were offended by Jefferson’s refusal to follow the rules of the Old World, but that did not matter to Jefferson or his countrymen, who re-elected him with a resounding majority of popular support.
Jefferson understood that symbolism was important.
Another president who promoted this egalitarian ideal was Franklin Roosevelt.
In 1939 he invited the king and queen of England to visit the United States to bolster Anglo-American unity in the face of the growing fascist threat. Roosevelt never bowed like Obama did to the king or queen — or any foreign royalty, for that matter.
On this special occasion, he simply demonstrated American hospitality.
As the British journalist Alistair Cooke detailed: “Roosevelt took them [the Royal couple] off to Hyde Park [his Hudson River estate] and drove his own hand-run automobile into the grounds and gave them a hot dog lunch. Well, this was a shocker to the British, but it's the thing he would do. You see, he was a natural aristocrat, Roosevelt was. He didn't have to put on airs.”
Roosevelt was also an American through and through and secure in his standing as a world leader.
There is a lesson here for President Obama, who appears intent on upending more than two centuries of American protocol. When he as president bows before a Saudi king or a Japanese emperor, he is sending an implicit message to millions of people around the world that the leader of the free world accepts the notion that some people are born to a higher rank than others.
But when our president stands up straight and extends his hand in friendship to all civilized nations, there is no danger, there is only opportunity — opportunity to communicate the values and spirit that Jefferson so eloquently conveyed to the rest of the world — “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Daniel Ruddy writes on politics and history. His upcoming book, “Theodore Roosevelt’s History of the United States” (Harper Collins), is due out in April 2010.
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