May 24th, 2013
04:14 PM ET
8 years ago

To salute or not? Obama's handshake sparks debate

(CNN) – Fans of "The West Wing" remember well the fake President Josiah Bartlett's advice when boarding the presidential helicopter, Marine One: duck.

He might easily have offered this advice as well: salute.

[twitter-follow screen_name='politicalticker']

Those who closely watch the president's every step and gesture noticed Friday he didn't salute the Marine standing guard at the foot of the chopper's stairs. After boarding and then shaking hands with the pilots, he quickly exited the chopper, and offered a handshake to the Marine at the steps, then returned for the short ride to Annapolis, Maryland for the United States Naval Academy commencement.

It's become tradition for presidents to salute the military officers he encounters when boarding the official helicopter, a tradition which is widely understood as begun by President Ronald Reagan in 1981.

But to not salute is not a break in protocol or a violation of any rule.

Nor was it likely a slight to the military. After all, Obama told the graduates in Annapolis later Friday morning, "Today we salute all the Americans who made the ultimate sacrifice in these wars, including 18 graduates of this Academy. We honor them all, now and forever."

The tradition is believed to have been started by Reagan. The story goes that he consulted the Marine Corps commandant who "told the president that as commander in chief he could salute anybody he wished," Smithsonian Magazine editor Carey Winfrey wrote in the New York Times.

It's not thought that President Dwight Eisenhower, who attained the rank of five-star general prior to his election and was the first commander-in-chief to ride a helicopter, saluted his pilot, and those before him would not have had the chance.

A hallmark of the U.S. military is that it is overseen by a civilian commander-in-chief. Some suggest the presidential salute to the troops is a sign of respect; others say it is not customary to offer a salute when out of uniform, and a sign of the over-militarization of the presidency.

And while the helicopter's rotor blades aren't spinning when a president approaches, there is still a reason for him to duck. It's to avoid hitting his head on the door opening which is a little low. (That noise you hear in the video is the auxiliary power unit on the helicopter running ahead of engaging the rotors.)

What do you think? Should the president salute the troops? Add your comments in the space below.

Filed under: President Obama
soundoff (1,580 Responses)
  1. Cole

    The President in not in uniform and he is a civilian. The military salutes the president to recognized he is Commanded and Chief. The president doesn't salutes the military because he is our Civilian elected leader and is responsible to the public that elected him. We have a civilian government and the military answers to the civilian government. The civilian government doesn't answer to the military. Honoring our military is not answering to the military.
    What ever happened to civics in high school? Geez

    May 24, 2013 10:43 pm at 10:43 pm |
  2. d


    May 24, 2013 10:44 pm at 10:44 pm |
  3. Gary L. Street

    It is up to the President. I would rather have a president who deals in reality before he sends soldiers into harms way.

    May 24, 2013 10:45 pm at 10:45 pm |
  4. Ronda

    Yes, the President should salute our troups. The reason is they protect us day and night, if not for our military who knows what condition this country would be in. It's a matter of respect and it goes both ways.

    May 24, 2013 10:45 pm at 10:45 pm |
  5. JoJo Stockline

    he never served, therefore he should not salute. civilians can't give a proper salute anyway, and it is disrespectful when they try, even though most are unaware of it.

    May 24, 2013 10:45 pm at 10:45 pm |
  6. Lindsay

    "Aerial Power Unit?" Anyone else (maintainer) laughing at this little tidbit? Did the author just look at the acronym and take a stab at it? Sibling parents perhaps...

    May 24, 2013 10:47 pm at 10:47 pm |
  7. Skipper Sam

    What if the President had just been told

    A) It is the young Marine's birthday
    B) The young Marine had just gotten married
    C) The young Marine had just become a father ?

    May 24, 2013 10:47 pm at 10:47 pm |
  8. Vern

    The president had a brain lock. Big deal. You could see him start the salute too late, and he had the grace and magnanimity to go back down, say something to the Marine, and shake his hand. The Marine can be seen smiling, so you know he was cool with it.

    No story here.

    May 24, 2013 10:48 pm at 10:48 pm |
  9. Jwzg

    Look, as a libertarian who is a Old Marine, I thought it was classy if a bit awkward. Give the guy a break.

    May 24, 2013 10:48 pm at 10:48 pm |
  10. jas

    The President can do what he wants when boarding the helicopter..

    May 24, 2013 10:49 pm at 10:49 pm |
  11. RossOKC

    When the president shakes your hand, he acknowledges you as a human being and a equal, he touches you.
    When he salutes, he just fulfills his obligation, and forgets about you.

    May 24, 2013 10:50 pm at 10:50 pm |
  12. The Thinker1958

    that's it... I can feel an impeachment coming... what if the President had planned the handshake because it was the marine's birthday or he did something special or anything like that? He went into the airplane and came out specially for the kid... maybe he was distracted with like 20 things going on in his head and he just 'black-out' for 5 seconds?

    May 24, 2013 10:51 pm at 10:51 pm |
  13. Keerview

    this shouldn't be a question because it's defined in the manual. The lower rank has to salute the higher rank. The higher rank doesn't have to return the salute. Being the Commander in Chief the President has the highest rank and can shake hands or high five or salute.

    May 24, 2013 10:52 pm at 10:52 pm |
  14. Chris

    A handshake is far more personal than a salute. Respect is as personal as it gets

    May 24, 2013 10:52 pm at 10:52 pm |
  15. abcdxyz

    I'm pretty sure that the service member is saluting the President as his Commander-in-Chief, and the President is returning the salute as the superior officer. The President is not honoring the military person, but accepting that person's salute of respect. That being said, if Ike didn't do it, I can't imagine it's obligatory for the President to return the salute. This is so a non-issue, but I'm sure the Republicans will want a full investigation.

    May 24, 2013 10:52 pm at 10:52 pm |
  16. b

    I think he should bow and kiss their hand like to did to the Saudi Arabian sheikh.

    May 24, 2013 10:53 pm at 10:53 pm |
  17. SGT B

    As a soldier, it would be an honor to shake the president's hand.

    May 24, 2013 10:53 pm at 10:53 pm |
  18. Amanda

    That was cute

    May 24, 2013 10:53 pm at 10:53 pm |
  19. Jim


    May 24, 2013 10:54 pm at 10:54 pm |
  20. John

    He's a disgrace to the US military and our country.

    May 24, 2013 10:57 pm at 10:57 pm |
  21. Critical Thinker

    Military personnel are not supposed to salute when in civies according to proper military etiquette. For example, they hold their hand over their heart when a U.S. flag passes by or during the national anthem when they are in civies. Saluting by the President is optional when encountering military personnel. Reagan's Vice President Bush, a Navy man, never saluted when boarding or when saluted by military personnel aboard my military ship on the exposed decks in 1982. Nothing to see here folks, move on.

    May 24, 2013 10:58 pm at 10:58 pm |
  22. Trypax

    To paraphrase what the Marine Commandant told Reagan - and I'm sure what he was thinking even if his words were more formal - as Commander-in-Chief, he can do what he damn well pleases! Plus, the President is not subject to military protocol or tradition; the controls go the other way. It is critical in our system of government that the military be subservient, AND THEY DAMN WELL BETTER REMEMBER THAT!!

    Anyone who questions what Obama does with respect to military protocol should look deep inside themselves and find out the root of your discomfort. Speaking as someone around 50, white, and raised in the recently desegregated South, I know where that impulse comes from. Do you?

    May 24, 2013 10:58 pm at 10:58 pm |
  23. Commonsense122

    President's don't render a salute they return one.

    May 24, 2013 11:00 pm at 11:00 pm |
  24. Polopoint

    big deal. so what? oh boy – the wingnuts are going to pounce on this!

    May 24, 2013 11:01 pm at 11:01 pm |
  25. Kathleen Farrell

    I sure do miss journalism.

    May 24, 2013 11:01 pm at 11:01 pm |
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 61 62 63 64