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.

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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. JLW

    Totally agree with Bill Richardson. Not a fan of Obama but he gave a personal handshake and appears actually spoke to the man. Much better than a salute and more personal. But, there are BIGGER FISH TO FRY as we know.

    May 25, 2013 06:47 pm at 6:47 pm |
  2. Larry L

    Over the last five years I've noted a trend. Those who attack the President focus on right-wing scandels or simply repeat hate media sound bites – no specifics are offered. For example, conservatives hate Obamacare but about 75% approve of all of the provisions as long as the term "Obamacare" isn't used. Conservatives like killing terrorists – as long as Obama's team isn't doing it. It's never the issues or the facts... so what could it be? We all know.

    May 25, 2013 06:50 pm at 6:50 pm |
  3. Rick

    A salute is a gesture of respect between superior to subordinate and subordinate to superior and peer to peer ranks in the military. A practice begun in the age of knights by raising their helmet shield and carried on by all militaries today. I see the President as the civilian military commander although civilian he shows his respect by saluting those who serve this country and are ultimately under his direction / command. Yes, the President in his capacity should acknowledge subordinates with a salute when he can (protocols may prevent the opportunity at times). I have to commend President Obama upon his realizing the missed salute for his returning to the soldier and shaking his hand with certainly an apology for his oversight.
    (PS. I'm not a fan of the President's socialistic political agenda at all; but respect is respect.)

    May 25, 2013 06:50 pm at 6:50 pm |
  4. Army Guy

    The President doesn't salute members of the military – he's returning the salutes he receives from them. Suborinates salute superiors, and superiors return the salutes – it's considered extremely rude in the military to not return a salute from a subordinate. I think Presidents are just being courteous by returning salutes.

    May 25, 2013 06:51 pm at 6:51 pm |
  5. Jessica B

    President Obama is so cool. I really like him!

    May 25, 2013 06:52 pm at 6:52 pm |
  6. CMSgtBuck

    While I can understand most of you don't have a clue when it comes to military tradition, the salute is a sign of respect...much more so than a handshake. The respect goes both ways, if the Marine saluted the CINC, then the reciprocal salute is approriate. It has nothing to do with who is in office or what party they affiliate with...if it is seen as picking on the CINC, maybe he should figure it out, salute back, put his hand over his heart when appropriate, you know the basic things we look for in our CINC.

    May 25, 2013 06:52 pm at 6:52 pm |
  7. Larry L


    What? Obama hates America and everything it stands for? What a shock!
    America does not stand for hate and racism. You'll see this in the next election when the right-wing gets the boot.

    May 25, 2013 06:52 pm at 6:52 pm |
  8. Michelle

    he saluted as he walked up the stairs, may have been late, but he did it. I suspect he walked back down the steps to thank the marine for his service on this weekend of rememberance of those who have served.

    And for the record... he doen't have to return the salute. The regulation says that a subordinate must salute, but the senior officer (though a civilian in this case) does not have to return the salute.

    I think we take things a little too far sometimes. Why do we need to judge EVERYONES every single move. Aren't there more important things in life!?

    May 25, 2013 06:54 pm at 6:54 pm |
  9. Robert

    Who cares! All this boys playing dress-up stuff is getting irritating already. Protocol may have been nice in the time of the Tsars, but we should be long past that nonsense now!

    May 25, 2013 07:00 pm at 7:00 pm |
  10. Josh

    Big deal.

    The President probably had something important on his mind, and didn't even consciously notice the Marine. Realized his mistake, came back out of the helicopter, apologized to the Marine and offered him a handshake, and returned back to inside the helicopter.

    May 25, 2013 07:01 pm at 7:01 pm |
  11. Noah

    Well, he bows to the Saudi king, so I guess a salute is not in his repertoire.....some American....

    May 25, 2013 07:04 pm at 7:04 pm |
  12. JONES

    Not a fan of Mr. O, but I think he corrected himself by going back and shaking the Corporal's hand.

    May 25, 2013 07:05 pm at 7:05 pm |
  13. danielle burns

    I'm a Republican and appreciate that he went back to acknowledge the Marine..This isn't a political issue – so everyone stop making it to be. It would have been silly to go back and salute him. At least he shook his hand and it appeared he apologized to the Marine.

    May 25, 2013 07:06 pm at 7:06 pm |
  14. johnk

    Amazing you have the Commander-and-Chief and he does a handshake. Just goes to show how, backward and separated Obama is from the military. After all he was NEVER in the military and is clueless as to how the protocal works in the military. Hay lets just fart to one another now.

    May 25, 2013 07:12 pm at 7:12 pm |
  15. Fluffles

    "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."

    Then what is the problem? Why is this even a thing?

    May 25, 2013 07:13 pm at 7:13 pm |
  16. Stan Long

    My goodness... with all going on in this world we cannot find something better to talk about. How about why I don't have any police / sheriff's patrol now in my rural Oregon area. And should perhaps we be spending some of our funds to fix things like that instead of trying to buy our friends overseas???

    May 25, 2013 07:14 pm at 7:14 pm |
  17. cobalt100

    Memorial Day is really a canard. Ostensibly, it is to honor those killed on the battlefield. How do you honor a dead person? Memorial Day is really a day for government workers, most of whom have never served in the military, to goof-off, and get paid for goofing off while veterans remain homeless.

    May 25, 2013 07:14 pm at 7:14 pm |
  18. LivinginVA

    Eisenhower didn't return salutes when he was President. This "tradition" began with Reagan, who was told by his military aide that it wasn't protocol. In fact, the first time Obama did it (as President-elect) there were articles about whether it was appropriate for him to be doing.

    May 25, 2013 07:16 pm at 7:16 pm |
  19. sp5(once)CSAnthony

    Readers:Pres.Obama is a CIVILIAN :&C&C of the Armed Forces. No soldier salutes a CIVILIAN & vice versa. The Founding Fathers had CIVILIAN control over the military for a good reason. Pres.Obama is CIVILIAN he needs to do nothing about saluting Marines or etc. Pres.Regan was an actor,so of course he would do the salute thing. But,in fine,the Press who report such meaningless drivel. How about the Press being The Third Estate, & not a 5th Column?

    May 25, 2013 07:17 pm at 7:17 pm |
  20. Allan Vandeford

    My understanding has always been that a handshake is given in recognition of an individual and / or that persons actions as an individual.

    To salute a member of the armed forces is to salute the "uniform"; not specific to the individual; but to recognize ; in this case; the Marine Corps as a whole; for the actions taken by all of it's members to protect this nation.

    May 25, 2013 07:20 pm at 7:20 pm |
  21. se

    Where is the white protocol offical? This is not a first term President-he is the Commander In Chief-even if he never served this country in the Military he should know that a Commander salutes his troops-is he making fun of a Military
    tradition? shame on you President Obamba-as a Former Navy Medical Corp Officer I resisent that he behaves so

    May 25, 2013 07:20 pm at 7:20 pm |
  22. LivinginVA

    "Is he the Commander in Chief or not? He is being saluted and in the military you return salutes. A handshake?? Please....that's almost as bad as asking the guy to hold an umbrella for him!"

    So Eisenhower was wrong by not returning salutes when he was President?
    Presumably you were equally outraged when Bush and Reagan both had Marines hold umbrellas for them?

    May 25, 2013 07:22 pm at 7:22 pm |
  23. Anonymous

    Duke #4 – like your comment is acceptable. He's the CinC – and if he chooses to salute, shake his hand, or ignore, it's his own business. Sorry you can't deal with a black man in power – get over it

    May 25, 2013 07:24 pm at 7:24 pm |
  24. Maryjean

    Stop making a big deal out of nothing, life is too short. Reagan did it, Why not a hand shake, there is nothing wrong with that.

    May 25, 2013 07:25 pm at 7:25 pm |
  25. Steve

    I am very much anti Obama...but he did nothing wrong here. And as any commander in a command decision oftentimes they do not return when underlings running around constantly the commander would be constantly smaking his forehead. I was enlisted medic, served with nothing but Drs and Pilots, standing order was no salute.

    May 25, 2013 07:31 pm at 7:31 pm |
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