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Mona Charen: How Low Can Obama Go?

The president's bow to the emperor of Japan extends beyond politeness

President Barack 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.

Mona Charen
Mona Charen

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. 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 Franklin D. 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.”

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 — un-American.

Here, let the New York Times explain it. In 1994, the Times gently rebuked President Bill 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?”

Obama’s bows, coupled with his global apology tours, suggest something other than politeness. 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.

Mona Charen writes for Creators Syndicate. Click here for more information or to contact her.

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