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?
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