Wednesday, April 15, 2009

How do you say faux pas in Austrian?


WASHINGTON—About that bow.

Did he or didn't he—the president of the United States, that is—bow to Saudi King Abdullah in a deferential greeting? And, if he did, is it of great—or any—consequence?

From the outrage emanating from those who can find little to admire about the current president, one would think Barack Obama had given the German chancellor a back rub. Or kissed the royal cheeks of the queen of Spain.

Both of which, in fact, George W. Bush did while president. The left went wild over les faux pas de George. Now, it seems, it's the right's turn to display equal pique.

When will we overcome?

No one of either party has cause for casting stones in these matters. Whether Republicans or Democrats are in charge, Americans are often formidably awkward around monarchs.

Do we buss one or both checks? Do we kiss the ring? Do we dare to eat a peach? Do we bow, curtsy, extend our pinkies—or shine our shoes? It's complicated, this parlor game of politesse. But it does matter. When you're the leader of the free world, every gesture and word counts.

It ain't easy being parfait.

It is also not in our DNA to bow to monarchs or to act beholden to anyone save God. We kneel before no human. Yet, occasionally, we are required to behave politely in countries that still cleave to their pomp and circumstance.

For such purposes, we have hirelings to instruct us in questions of protocol. We wonder lately where they are. Who didn't tell Michelle Obama that one doesn't put an arm around the queen of England, no matter how endearing we renegades might find it? Who didn't tell the president that the United States does not bow, especially not to the rulers of countries where women are less valuable than sheep?

Might we need a change of palace guard? Paging Letitia Baldrige?

Baldrige, the towering grand dame of all things proper, was the ruling knuckle-rapper during America's Camelot period. Was the Kennedy administration the last time Americans didn't have to worry that their first family might embarrass them?

Whatever their other flaws, the Kennedys could be counted on to mind their p's and q's in public. If there were any question, Baldrige—officially White House social secretary and chief of staff to Jacqueline Kennedy—was there to fill in the blanks.

Manners aren't complicated, Baldrige once told me. "Manners are simply showing consideration for others."

Which is to say, you do as the Romans. Or the Austrians (who speak German, not Austrian, Mr. President). That doesn't mean we compromise our own values in the process. Hence Rule No. 1: Americans don't bow to monarchs.

I've now watched the tape of Obama's bow a dozen or more times. It is simply not possible to accept an anonymous White House official's insistence that Obama was merely reaching down to take the king's hand and had to bend over because of the height difference.

Not to name drop, but I've met the king and I've met the president. We're not talking Gulliver and the Lilliputians. Even if Obama needed to reach down for the king's hand, why not let the king raise his hand of his own volition? When I shook hands with the king, he seemed to know what to do.

To any objective observer, Obama's bend from the waist quacked like a duck. It was ... a bow. Clumsy, embarrassing and unbecoming a president, yes, but not an act of treason or, as one newspaper put it, a gesture of "fealty to a foreign potentate."

Obama was probably trying to be respectful and, it appears, may even have lost his balance a little. On a bright note, he didn't throw up on the king, as George H.W. Bush managed to do upon Japan's prime minister's lap during dinner. Quite the unfortunate little mess, that.

We elect presidents for a variety of reasons, though not usually for their aristocratic bearings. And few of them are presidential out of the starting gate.

We are, alas, commoners, one and all. And proud of it, apparently. Our forefathers, moreover, spilled blood so that we wouldn't have to bow to kings and queens.

So it is. And, one hopes, shall ever be.

In the meantime, given the season of second chances, we might grant the Obamas a little slack. We might also nudge them to clean house, politely of course, and invite Ms. Baldrige to tea.

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