The pics of the Obamas meeting little Prince George, British royal heir, in his bathrobe were very cute. More distressing were the justified concerned expressions on the Obamas’ faces while in the car with Queen Elizabeth and her 94 year old husband Prince Philip, who was at the wheel. Should Presidents and First Ladies be entrusted to such an elderly driver, even if royal? The incident recalled Nixon gifting a Lincoln Continental to an excited Soviet chief Brezhnev, who brashly insisted on driving Nixon at great speed down a steep slope at Camp David. FDR was known for taking Churchill on semi-dangerous drives along the hills of Hyde Park gunning the engine with his special hand controls.
Fortunately Prince Philip seems still to be a safe driver, and the Obamas survived. Their visit with British royals, to whom they apparently didn’t bow, although of course kneeling to visit the toddler Prince, recalled earlier controversies over President Obama bowing deeply at nearly 90 degree angles when first meeting the Saudi King and Japanese Emperor. (Evidently he didn’t bow when meeting the Emperor a second time, and apparently not on subsequent visits with the Saudi, including most recently.)
Americans, least of all Presidents, are not supposed to bow to foreign potentates. As Miss Manners once counseled: “One does not bow or curtsy to a foreign monarch because the gesture symbolizes recognition of her power over her subjects.” I think she was responding to an earlier controversy in the 1980s when Reagan’s Chief of Protocol curtsied to Prince Charles. Her husband was the former USA ambassador to Britain. Hopefully they hadn’t curtsied to royalty during their London years representing America. I once met the royal heir apparent of a small country when I was in government but neither my colleagues nor I offered more than a handshake.
Yesterday was English Puritan Oliver Cromwell’s birthday, and he would have bowed to royalty for much of his life but decidedly not in later years. The Puritan parliamentarian and general of course helped lead a civil war against the English monarch, whom he ultimately beheaded. He refused the crown for himself though he was unable to create an adequate constitutional alternative, eventually dismissing parliament and ruling through the army. The more zealous Levellers among the Puritans, animated by hyper Protestant egalitarianism, reputedly declared “no king but Jesus.”
Cromwell’s non-monarchical protectorate was instructive to America’s Founders, both the example of legislative and armed resistance to tyranny and the need for stable republican constitutional rule to avoid any threat of dictatorship, military or otherwise. Patrick Henry in his electrifying “give me liberty speech” warned that King Charles I had had his Cromwell, and King George should learn by his example. George Washington, in punctiliously resigning from the army, demonstrated he would not follow Cromwell’s example of military rule. At his presidential levees, Washington exchanged reciprocal bows with visitors, but even that habit soon surrendered to more democratic handshakes in subsequent presidencies.
Americans as citizens of a great republic don’t bow to foreign rulers or to our own. The people and their just laws are sovereign, and no citizen has any intrinsic superiority over any other. We as Americans don’t bow to each other. The most powerful and least powerful meet with handshakes. Almost every American innately knows we don’t bow, yet likely few understand why, or how unusual and relatively recent this understanding of human equality is for any human society.
But kneeling down to greet cute children, little prince or otherwise, remains copacetic, of course.