Fox News has lost its mind, again: Salute-gate, Reagan myths and the right-wing outrage machine

Here's the history and actual facts behind presidential salutes. Shocker: It's Hollywood nonsense stoked by Reagan

Published September 25, 2014 8:02PM (EDT)

Sean Hannity, Karl Rove      (Fox News)
Sean Hannity, Karl Rove (Fox News)

Fox News has lost its collective mind. Again. Wednesday was a big news day. President Obama gave a speech to the U.N. General Assembly with the goal of building a coalition to fight ISIS. Later, the president chaired a session of the U.N. Security Council, seeking approval for his plan to bomb terrorist targets in Syria. It worked; the Security Council voted to approve the president’s plan and Arab states that have previously been reluctant to join in military action in other Arab states joined the U.S.  and other Western allies by flying bombing sorties over Syria.

So, what’s the top story over at the GOP propaganda ministry, aka Fox News? A salute.

The White House uploaded a video to Instagram of the president disembarking from Marine One on his way to address the U.N. As he comes down the stairs he returns the salute of the two Marines flanking the stairs. Pretty innocuous stuff. Unless you’re Allen West. Shortly after the video was posted, Michele Hickford, the editor in chief of West’s little corner of crazy on the Internet  wrote: “If there was ever any doubt how this Commander in Chief really feels in his heart about our men and women in uniform, this should seal the deal. We have warriors engaged in harm’s way, and he does THIS? The latte salute. And he has the nerve to publish it on his Instagram account. Disgraceful.”

What was this “disgrace” that proved that Obama hates our brave warriors in uniform? As he descends the stairs with a coffee in one hand and holding his suit jacket closed with the other, Obama casually returns the salute of the two Marines stationed at the bottom of the stairs WITH A CUP OF COFFEE IN HIS HAND! It’s even worse than Umbrella-gate!

It wasn’t long before Fox News dutifully took up the charge and turned it into a full-blown scandal. In a segment with Karl Rove on Sean Hannity’s show, Hannity showed the video and incredulously asked Rove, “Would President Bush ever do that?” Rove mockingly saluted with a cup of coffee in hand and blasted Obama: "Are we surprised? After all we've got a chai-swillin’, golf-playin’, basketball trash-talkin’ leadin' from behind I got no strategy Osama bin Laden is dead GM is alive community organizing commander in chief ... How disrespectful was that?"

Obviously Rove is an expert when it comes to disrespect. He also never answered Hannity’s question, and for good reason. As the AP noted, George Bush was photographed multiple times exiting Marine One and awkwardly saluting while holding his dog Barney, the most popular member of the Bush administration. But Fox was just warming up.  Later, Hannity invited disgraced former Lt. Col. Oliver North to comment. North obligingly slammed Obama for hating the military:

“Here’s the real problem - he doesn’t give a damn (about the military). The reality of it is any president, any commander-in-chief, even Lyndon Johnson would find out from his military aides what the proper pronunciation of things is. This is a president who can go out on a golf course and high-five people minutes after he has been on the phone with a correspondent’s parents who is dead. I mean this is the kind of person who truly does not get it."

Almost every Fox talking head in every segment took up the drumbeat. Curiously, Bill O’Reilly proved to be the one voice of sanity in Fox’s alternate universe. Appearing on Fox and Friends, O’Reilly said: "I know a lot of people don't like President Obama, but once in a while ya gotta cut him a little slack. He didn't mean anything malevolent. If he had dumped the coffee on the Marine, then we'd have a problem."

But the Wingnutosphere was already ablaze in full-blown poutrage mode. Fox contributor Todd Starnes took to Twitter, as did Jim Hoft, the Stupidest Man on the Internet. Fanned by Fox, in no time the “latte salute” flames of outrage spread to Breitbart, Newsbusters, Daily Caller and the rest of the right-wing noise machine. Even the Republican National Committee got in on the act by creating the site to raise money for Republican candidates. How much can they raise on something so insignificant? Knowing the GOP base, my bet is quite a bit.

Not only was the Wingnutosphere reaction petty and downright silly, it was based on ignorance. They all got it completely wrong. I’m sure you’re as shocked as I am. I happen to have a go-to guy when it comes to presidents, Marines and salute protocol. My father is a retired Marine Corps officer who served as a military aide to the Eisenhower White House. One of his duties was managing the protocol of the Marine Corps White House detail. When I ran this by him he told me that “I never saw Eisenhower salute when not in uniform. Ike was a real stickler for military protocol. He’d chew my ass for even the slightest breach of decorum or the tiniest uniform defect from any of the Marines stationed at the White House. He never saluted the Marine detail. He didn’t think it was proper.”

Some have claimed Ike never saluted military personnel as president, based, it seems, on a passage from Rachel Maddow’s 2012 book "Drift": “Soldiers were supposed to salute their president; the president was not supposed to salute the soldiers. No modern president, not even old Gen. Eisenhower, had saluted military personnel. It might even be, well, sort of, improper."

In this case Maddow, whose work is generally impeccably sourced and dead on accurate, exaggerated slightly. Ike did salute military personnel, but only rarely and only on special occasions, like the dedication of the Marine Corps War Memorial or when presenting medals. He did not salute military personnel in the course of his daily duties as president. In fact, going all the way back to George Washington, no president routinely returned salutes from military personnel. It’s both a matter of military protocol and a way to show that we have a civilian head of state, not a military leader.

So, when did this whole presidents saluting thing come from? Ronald Reagan. Reagan, who had flown a desk in the Army Air Corps during World War II, liked to salute. His aides advised him it wasn’t proper protocol for a civilian president to salute military personnel in uniform. Reagan liked to tell an anecdote about how he overruled his aides. Over a few drinks one night, Reagan asked Gen. Robert Barrow, the commandant of the Marine Corps at the time, if it was appropriate for a president to salute military personnel in uniform. According to Reagan, Barrow answered, "I think if you did, no one would say anything." According to other sources, Barrow gave Reagan a far more Marine type of answer. “Sir, you’re the goddam president and you can do any goddam thing you want.”

Regulations state that not even active service members are required to salute when they are not in uniform, but all of the presidents following Reagan have adopted saluting as a matter of routine. It’s good optics, if not good protocol. But what about Obama’s awkward salute with a cup of coffee in his hand? That must be a serious breach of decorum, right? Well, not so much. The higher the rank, the more casual returned salutes tend to be. Many high-ranking officers return the salutes of lower-ranking officer in a perfunctory, casual way. Some barely raise their arm. Rank has its privileges, and one of the privileges of high military rank is you can salute any damn way you want.

So, even by the traditions of the military, Fox News got it all wrong. But the consumers of right-wing noise will never know this. It’s not the first time a salute has caused controversy for a president. It’s not even the first time an Obama salute has sparked conservative rage. A couple of years ago right-wingers were outraged by another Obama salute while descending the stairs of Marine One, this time while talking on a cell phone, because of course the leader of the free world should hang up on whatever head of state he may be speaking to to show respect for a couple of enlisted men. That picture flashed through the Wingnutosphere, as well, but it didn’t spark the same level of poutrage.

Why, then, is the right-wing outrage machine cranked up to 11 this time? It may have to do with the fact that most Republicans agree with Obama’s decision to bomb Syria. Fox News and the rest of the GOP can’t appear to be siding with the president. A scandal, no matter how petty or how wrong on the facts, is just what the right-wing doctor ordered.

By John Avignone

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