April 4, 2009
The internet is alive with stories about President Barack Obama bowing low before Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah. It was bad enough when George W. Bush invited this odious tyrant to Crawford and was pictured walking hand-in-hand with him. The White House defensively claimed then that it was a Saudi custom for men to express their friendship by holding hands. Had they never heard: "When in Rome, do as the Romans do"? That was bad enough. This Obama obeisance was horrible.
Franklin D. Roosevelt was accused of wanting to be a king. But he knew a lot more about how to behave around monarchs than his present-day successors do. When King George VI and his wife, Queen Elizabeth (parents of Elizabeth II) came to the Roosevelt home at Hyde Park in 1939, Franklin and Eleanor gave them a picnic. They served the first British monarchs ever to set foot on U.S. soil hot dogs and beans! How thoroughly American.
During that same visit, the President ended a late-night conversation with the King by tapping the young monarch on the knee and saying: "Young man, it's time you were in bed."
As we've been reminded with First Lady Michele Obama patting Queen Elizabeth on the back recently, for a commoner to touch a British monarch is considered an act of lese majeste. That old French term meant "an injury to the King's dignity." It gave rise to the English saying, "You never touch the King, except to kill him." (It's a good thing George VI didn't choke on those Boston baked beans. Imagine the Secret Service trying to perform a Heimlich maneuver on him without touching him.)
FDR met with King Abdullah's father, Abdulazziz in 1945 on board the USS Quincy. Abdullah is one of more than three dozen sons of Saudi Arabia's founder. Roosevelt and the Saudi king can be seen in old photos staring directly at the camera. He and the old desert chieftain are correct, even civil, but they are not behaving like bosom buddies.
Certainly Roosevelt would never have dreamed of bowing before a Saudi or any foreign dignitary. In fact, Prime Minister Winston Churchill-possibly freedom's greatest champion on earth-bowed to FDR when he met him. Churchill was acknowledging Roosevelt's stature as Chief of State. Churchill was keenly aware of the difference between monarchies and republics. In fact, this half-American statesman called the United States "the Great Republic."
So why was the Obama Obeisance so horrible? The President of the United States should bow to no man. Nobody should bow to Abdullah. His kingdom of Saudi Arabia is one of the worst human rights abusers on earth. Muslims who convert to Christianity-or are even suspected of converting-are killed there. Sometimes their headless bodies are even crucified. Slavery was outlawed in Saudi Arabia only in 1962-but no non-Muslim is allowed inside Mecca to determine if this is really true. The Bushes-father and son-claimed personal friendship with the Saudi royal family. They said the Saudis were our great allies in the war on terror. Maybe. But it is Saudi petrodollars that fuel the militant Wahhabi version of Islam at home and around the world-including U.S. prisons. It's a short step from Wahhabi Islam to jihadism.
I come by my republican beliefs naturally. My father was in the U.S. Merchant Service in World War II. He brought oranges and bananas to Welsh children who, under strict British rationing, had never seen these fruits. "Pop" stopped in a pub in Swansea, Wales and ordered a cup of coffee. In those pre-Starbucks days, but under severe wartime shortages, that cup cost three dollars.
Suddenly, someone ran into the pub and cried out: "Their Majesties!" Everyone, including the barkeep, ran out to see King George VI and his wife, Queen Elizabeth. It was a tribute to the monarchs' bravery that they could visit bombed-out cities in an open car-with no fear of assassination. Pop stayed at the bar, quietly drinking his coffee.
Many times I would tease him. "It was your only chance to see real, live monarchs, Pop, how could you pass it up?" My father's would snort and wave his hand dismissively. "What use do I have for monarchs? I am an American."
Since he passed away, I have returned to that story many times. Pop deeply respected the courage of the British people. He knew he would be expected to bow if he went into the street. He did not want to offend our valiant allies. Part of his understanding of what it meant to be an American is that he bowed to no man. And besides, he didn't want that $3 cup of coffee to get cold.
It is tragic that President Obama has abased himself before King Abdullah. In doing so, he abased us all. We used to sing "Thy banners make tyranny tremble." Now, those lyrics have been re-written: Thy banners make tyranny comfortable.