A little traveling, like a little learning, can be a dangerous thing. Barack Obama on the loose in a foreign land is enough to frighten protocol officers and embarrass the rest of us.
He went off to Asia to tell the Chinese a thing or two about world trade, to prepare the world for a treaty to make the sun change its spots, and of course to pay his respects to assorted heads of state, with particular attention to any royal head (perhaps even including Miss Universe) who crosses his path.
So far it’s a memorable trip. He established a new precedent for how American presidents should pay obeisance to kings, emperors, monarchs, sovereigns and assorted other authentic man-made masters of the universe. He stopped just this side of the full grovel to the emperor of Japan, risking a painful genuflection if his forehead had hit the floor with a nasty bump, which it almost did. No president before him so abused custom, traditions, protocol (and the country he represents). Several Internet sites published a rogue’s gallery showing how other national leaders - the prime ministers of Israel, India, Slovenia, South Korea, Russia and Dick Cheney among them - have greeted Emperor Akihito with a friendly handshake and an ever-so-slight but respectful nod (and sometimes not even that).
Now we know why Mr. Obama stunned everyone with an earlier similar bow to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, only the bow to the Japanese emperor was far more flamboyant, a sign of a really deep sense of inferiority. He was only practicing his bow in Riyadh. Sometimes rituals are learned with difficulty. It took Bill Clinton months to learn how to return a military salute worthy of a commander in chief; like any draft dodger, he kept poking a thumb in his eye until he finally got it. Mr. Obama, on the other hand, seems right at home now giving a wow of a bow. This is not the way an American president impresses evildoers that he’s strong, tough and decisive, that America is not to be trifled with.
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Some of the president’s critics are giving him a hard time, and it’s true that this president seems never to have studied much American history. Not bowing to foreign potentates was what 1776 was all about. His predecessors learned with no difficulty that the essence of America is that all men stand equal and are entitled to look even a king, maybe particularly a king, straight in the eye. Can anyone imagine George Washington, John Adams or Thomas Jefferson making a similar gesture of servile submission? Or Harry Truman? Or FDR, who famously served the lowly hot dog, with ballpark mustard, to the king and queen of England? John F. Kennedy, on the eve of a trip to London, sharply warned Jackie not to curtsy to the queen.
Douglas MacArthur, who ranked above mere heads of state in his own mind, once invented his own protocol on greeting Emperor Hirohito. The emperor, the father of Akihito, wanted to meet MacArthur soon after he arrived to become the military regent of Japan in 1945, perhaps to thank him for saving the throne at the end of World War II. When the emperor invited MacArthur to call on him, the general sent word that the emperor should call on him - speaking of breaches of custom - and the two men were photographed together, astonishing the Japanese. The emperor arrived in full formal dress, cutaway coat and all, and MacArthur received him in summer khakis, sans tie, with his hands stuffed casually in his back pockets. Further astonishing the Japanese, he towered over the diminutive emperor.
But Mr. Obama, unlike his predecessors, likely knows no better, and many of those around him, true children of the grungy ‘60s, are contemptuous of custom. Cutting America down to size is what attracts them to “hope” for “change.” It’s no fault of the president that he has no natural instinct or blood impulse for what the America of “the 57 states” is about. He was sired by a Kenyan father, born to a mother attracted to men of the Third World and reared by grandparents in Hawaii, a paradise far from the American mainstream.
He no doubt wants to “do the right thing” by his lights, but the lights that illumine the Obama path are not necessarily the lights that illuminate the way for most of the rest of us. This is good news only for Jimmy Carter, who may yet have to give up his distinction as our most ineffective and embarrassing president.
• Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.