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Jewish World Review
Nov. 17, 2009 / 30 Mar-Cheshvan 5770
How Low Can He Go?
President Obama, who nearly prostrated himself before the king of Saudi
Arabia last April, has once again bowed low to a monarch this time to
the emperor of Japan.
What to make of this obsequious body language?
After the presidential frame went perpendicular before the Saudi royal,
the White House at first denied that the president had bowed. He was
merely leaning over, Robert Gibbs explained, because the president was
"taller than the king." That might make sense to anyone who had not
seen the video. President Obama bent so far over that he was at eye
level with the king's hips.
The president's defenders suggested that he was merely being polite, or
simply following protocol. Politeness consists in treating others with
respect and taking care not to hurt their feelings. But a bow, well,
that's a different matter.
Last week, the president did it again, bowing from the waist before
Japan's Emperor Akihito. So what might have seemed a rookie mistake is
now looking deliberate.
Protocol is not the explanation. While there have been exceptions,
American presidents have not traditionally bowed to royalty. Nor have
American diplomats or citizens of any stripe. Kings and queens of
England have visited America and been quite satisfied to receive a
dignified handshake from Americans high and low. President Roosevelt
famously served Great Britain's King George VI and Queen Elizabeth hot
dogs at his Hyde Park home.
When it comes to body language, it's best to stick to your own culture
and traditions. A too-eager attempt to ingratiate by adopting others'
customs can backfire. According to one Asian expert consulted by ABC's
Jake Tapper, Obama's low bow caused considerable consternation in Japan.
Apparently, a proper Japanese bow under the circumstances would have
been executed with hands at the sides, and a slight tilt from the waist.
"The bow as he performed it did not just display weakness in Red State
terms, but evoked weakness in Japanese terms ...The last thing the
Japanese want or need is a weak-looking American president and, again,
in all ways, he unintentionally played that part."
President Obama makes much of his international pedigree, the latest
iteration being the boast that he is the "first Pacific president"
whatever that means. But when he stoops to royalty this way, he invites
the question: How American does he feel?
Don't hyperventilate. Of course, there is no one way for Americans to
think or feel. But some American attitudes are, or used to be, woven
deeply into our character. Most Americans have a visceral distaste,
dating back to our founding, for truckling to royalty. Article One,
Section 9 of the 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 Congress,
accept any present, emolument, office, or title, of any kind whatever,
from any king, prince, or foreign state." Kings and emperors have been
treated with courtesy, of course, but to bow is yes, I'll say it
Here, let the New York Times explain it. In 1994, the Times gently
rebuked President Clinton for "almost" bowing to the Japanese emperor.
"It wasn't a bow, exactly," the editorial chided, "(b)ut Mr. Clinton
came close. He inclined his head and shoulders forward, he pressed his
hands together. It lasted no longer than a snapshot, but the image on
the South Lawn was indelible: an obsequent President, and the Emperor of
Japan. Canadians still bow to England's Queen; so do Australians.
Americans shake hands. If not to stand eye-to-eye with royalty, what
else were 1776 and all that about?"
President Obama's bows, coupled with his global apology tours, suggest
something other than politeness. President Obama has repeatedly reminded
us that he thinks we have been arrogant and high-handed in our dealings
with other nations. By bowing and scraping, he intends to drop us down a
peg or two. The president of the United States really did intend to show
obeisance to the King of Saudi Arabia and to defer to the emperor of
Japan. He appears to have done so not to flatter those nations but only
to diminish his own.
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