May 24th, 2013
04:14 PM ET
7 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.

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. Navy officer

    That handshake was far more personal–to exit the helicopter to solely shake the hand of the Corporal cannot be misconstrued otherwise. APU = Auxiliary Power Unit, not Aerial. It's not tradition for him to salute only officers (a Corporal is not an officer), as Commander in Chief, both officers and enlisted salute him, and he can return the salute.

    May 25, 2013 06:47 am at 6:47 am |
  2. Thomas Raley, ex-marine

    I believe as Commander-in-chief, the president should acknowledge the salute of the Marine Guard by saluting him back.

    May 25, 2013 06:52 am at 6:52 am |
  3. popseal

    Returning a salute acknowledges the responsibility of authority through the ranks of the military. It's more than important because the military commanders have life and death decisions in their hands. You don't salute the CEO or shop foreman or union chairman. Hugs and hand shakes are meaningless in the military mind regarding the chain of command. Although 'Bam surely isn't aware of anything but his next political calculation.

    May 25, 2013 06:52 am at 6:52 am |
  4. Harold Kneeland

    Personally I would prefer to shake the Presidents'. hand.....more personal!!! Even better, how about a salute FOLLOWED by a handshake??? WHAT AN HONOR!!! ....The President salutes you in honor of your service to
    the United States of America and you have the priviledge of shaking his hand!!!
    A Veteran of the Korean Korean War era..(Enlisted in the Army on January 15, 1952, but never served in Korea)

    May 25, 2013 07:04 am at 7:04 am |
  5. chet

    Salute! You are the commander in chief aren't you? Show some respect and return the salute!

    May 25, 2013 07:04 am at 7:04 am |
  6. Tim Cash

    YES. It's a sign of respect, but could also be interpreted to be an acknowledgement of service to the Military Member. In no way does it diminish or demonize a civilian Commander in Chief.
    I applaud it.

    May 25, 2013 07:04 am at 7:04 am |
  7. Jim G.

    The Marine did the right thing. He saluted the Commander In Chief, and when it was obvious the President would not return the salute, he dropped his. The President shows more and more dis-respect for the Military as he flounders his way through the presidency.

    May 25, 2013 07:07 am at 7:07 am |
  8. mb2010a

    Tempest in a teapot...there is no requirement that the President has to salute anyone. There is, however, one that requires that they salute him, as they should. Eisenhower, when he was president, never returned salutes from the military when they saluted him because he was a civilian and no longer an active general. President Obama can do so if he wants, but protocol does not require it nor demand it. He is right either way...

    May 25, 2013 07:08 am at 7:08 am |
  9. W.

    This cannot be the best news that's fit to print. Of all the things happening in the world, good and bad, the issue of whether the President forgot a salute should overtake other issues far more concerning is ridiculous. I like our President, and in many respects all of our Presidents, (well, maybe Nixon was a stretch here...) yet there are times when each has exasperated my patience. This president generally offers a rather, partially snappy salute and that is more than most. Let us move on to more pressing matters that serve the interest of the press with considerably greater importance to the public. Yawn...

    May 25, 2013 07:10 am at 7:10 am |
  10. Dekester

    I always thought the salute was out of order, and wondered why, in Reagan's case, that a person who never served in the military would salute. Another example might be when the National Anthem is played, a military member salutes the flag, while the non-military person (including the President) covers their heart. IF it is expected for the President to salute, it sends a message of the militarization of the civilian Presidency, and that, in my opinion, is not a good thing.

    May 25, 2013 07:11 am at 7:11 am |
  11. godslave1

    I am not military, but I think, as with Gen. Powell, that it should be up to the superior officer whether to return the salute with a salute or with a handshake. I know from reading my military histories and knowing ex-military that you never question a superior. In most cases, a return salute would be appropriate. However, I can see times, such as those when a unit has sustained casualties, that a superior may want to dispense with the usual protocol and offer a handshake instead. It should entirely be in the hands of the superior, whether CIC civilian or four-star general.

    May 25, 2013 07:12 am at 7:12 am |
  12. DaveO

    Of course he should have saluted, by not he disrespected the marine standing at the bottom of the stairs and everything he stands for! Coming back out and shaking his hand and not locking up and giving him the proper salute is just as direspectful!

    May 25, 2013 07:12 am at 7:12 am |
  13. 30yrs service

    It is the custom for the marine to render the slaute and hold it until the CiC returns the salute. The salute predates the USA by many centuries and a sign of repect by two warriors. He is the Comander in Chief and the salute is to the position not the person.

    May 25, 2013 07:12 am at 7:12 am |
  14. Kumar P

    Salute vs Handshake – Aren't we in the 21st century. The President just forgot the salute for the first time, perhaps deep in his thoughts about whatever crisis, and came down to shake hands. What a nice gesture!

    May 25, 2013 07:15 am at 7:15 am |
  15. Brian

    There are protocols. But many are dictated by the superior officer. Having worked for the Air Force I knew one major who want civilians to stand when he entered the room. I said bs to that. however as the top dog, I would say Obama can do as he sees fit.

    May 25, 2013 07:16 am at 7:16 am |
  16. Danny

    The president should return a salute. It denotes respect for the men and women in arms, it highlights what the military is doing, protecting us, AND him. It goes beyond the president. The president is after all the Commander-and-Chief. Set the correct example, leadership starts from the top down.

    May 25, 2013 07:17 am at 7:17 am |
  17. Eddie

    I thought that was very human and Obama was very nice about it. The president got out and shook the soldier's hand because he felt he did not give the man a proper greeting. Not because he forgot the stupid salute. The president has a lot in his mind – most of it drama created by the media and republicans.

    May 25, 2013 07:18 am at 7:18 am |
  18. joy


    May 25, 2013 07:19 am at 7:19 am |
  19. mark

    The Reagan only did it because it was in the script

    May 25, 2013 07:20 am at 7:20 am |
  20. J Cheatham

    He's a civilian, I think he can be forgiven, nuff said. He at least had the courtesy to go back out and shake hands with the Corporal (who knows, might've apologized too?) Whatever, mountain meets molehill.

    May 25, 2013 07:24 am at 7:24 am |
  21. Just Me

    The military is not controlled or run by a military junta. The military of the U.S. is controlled by a civilian government. Therefore, the President of the U.S. is a civilian and NOT a member of the armed forces. As President he is not enlisted in or holds any office in any branch of the military. He, or maybe she some day, is a civilian politician that is in charge of the military. It is true that all military officers acknowledge salutes from other military people as a show of acceptance of their showing of willingness of obedience by their salute but they do not salute civilians and civilians DO NOT show obedience to a military officer by saluting because the military does not rule the civilian. The commander in chief, is a civilian controller, not an officer of the military. This keeps us separate from the dictator governments.

    May 25, 2013 07:27 am at 7:27 am |
  22. david shoup

    When not in uniform you do not salute. I would not salute General Shoup (Commandant USMC 1963, if he was in civvies. No big deal

    May 25, 2013 07:29 am at 7:29 am |
  23. clarke

    Instead of being Negative about the President, how about looking at the fact that he came back and acknowledged the young man with a hand shake. The military should be acknowledged in some form by the the President, I feel that if the President was in the military then a salute, if non military, then a hand shake. Why not ask the Men and Women who are in the military how they feel about it. I find nothing wrong with a personal touch.

    May 25, 2013 07:31 am at 7:31 am |
  24. Bugs

    Trivial. We, and the President, have more important things to deal with.

    May 25, 2013 07:32 am at 7:32 am |
  25. marsally

    I've often questioned the practice of a non-military president, meaning one who did not serve, saluting anyone. Doesn't seem right to me. At the same time, is it uncomfortable for a marine to receive a handshake? Is the marine expected to keep his hands free? What is the protocol from the marine's point of view.

    May 25, 2013 07:32 am at 7:32 am |
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