Few things took precedence last week over the details of the visit by President Obama and the First Lady to Britain’s Queen Elizabeth.
The economy, bailouts, the war in Afghanistan, the G20 Summit: All of these paled as talk-show hosts and columnists spent days purely pondering protocol.
For a few days, the big news was whether Obama had blown it by presenting Her Royal Highness with an iPod containing footage of her previous public appearances (she gave the Obamas a framed family portrait) and whether Michelle committed a breach by touching Queen Elizabeth other than during a handshake.
So, what constitutes protocol? What are the roots of this phenomenon that determine distance, occasions for touching, whether a curtsy or a bow takes precedence over a simple handshake?
To review: Both Obamas gave the queen a two-handed handshake, called a glove, apparently proper procedure. And while taking a group photo, neither Obama touched the queen. Notice, in scores of Optic photos, usually of cheerleaders, how many subjects put their arms around one another. Some day it may even be common to find U.S. presidents hugging the queen while holding two fingers behind her head in rabbit ear fashion.
Ritual, a major part of protocol, demands certain behavior. And many of us received that kind of indoctrination early in life.
For my part, a strict mother, a parochial (literally) upbringing and a bevy of no-nonsense nuns may have — ultimately — made me rebellious.
Let me explain:
Attending Immaculate Conception School, I belonged to the callow fellowship of youths not allowed to think for themselves. And although my mother never voiced these words, I’m sure she believed that “When you’re mature enough to think for yourself, I’ll let you know.”
Like many, I grew us in a regimented society, where protocol reigned supreme. The folks always insisted we boys tip our hat when greeting elders, regardless of sex. That requirement was not limited to occasions of wearing a stove-pipe hat, which we didn’t own; no, even a baseball cap needed tipping.
Church, similarly, instilled some fairly rigorous strictures such as no chewing gum, no wearing a hat (if you’re a male), and no misbehavior.
On the completion of the new edifice, the present I.C. church, Mom briefed me on communion protocol. For example, at the time, I was instructed to approach the communion rail from the center aisle, regardless of where I was seated, and return through the side aisle.
That meant stepping over people who remained in position in that pew. But the return — my mom’s orders — entailed a bit of fancy footwork. Mom said that when others returned, I wasn’t allowed merely to let them step over me. No-oo, thou shalt slide clear over to the end of thy pew to make room for them.
That worketh only in theory. First, nobody else even thought of sliding over to make room for me. Second, what do you do with the coats, hats and purses people had left there, either to avoid having to tote them, or to mark their turf?
I was tempted to borrow a can of bowling alley wax, which on Saturday nights we pinboys applied to the lanes where we worked, and use it on the church pew my family occupied, to ease the process.
During school, the nuns prepped us on church protocol, ordering us to return to our pews after receiving the elements with our hands pressed flatly against each other, and almost touching our chin — angel style.
Most of the girls followed that requirement. For us boys, well, that was “girlish,” and the best we could manage was having our hands together, fingers locked in front of us, lest we look like sissies. The “angel” position for boys usually resulted in years of teasing from some calloused cretin classmates.
In later years I began to shun ritual, once explaining to a fellow church member, as I helped with the collection, that “This isn’t exactly the Moscow Ballet,” and whether I execute a brief pas de deux or a plié ought not matter that much.
Now, please understand that I respect ritual practiced by others though don’t always practice it myself.
And that’s why I puzzled over the copious network coverage of Fox News, which for days ran a “teaser” preceding each newscast: “Did the Obamas Commit a Faux Pas before the Queen?”
At issue were breaches in protocol which would be major to the Rush Limbaughs of the world or members of the Republican Party.
For example, some of the Fox News crew practically hemorrhaged over the fact that Queen Elizabeth — as is her right — put her arm across Michelle’s back, and the First Lady reciprocated, breaking Commandment No. 11: never put your hands on the queen.
But although London’s Daily Mail described the physical contact as “a breach of centuries-long protocol,” scores of British schoolgirls waited in line for their hugs from America’s First Lady.
Queen Elizabeth has hosted 11 American presidents, back to Truman, and almost as many first ladies. Michelle Obama’s attempt at closeness fails to out-gross the wink George W. Bush gave the queen in 2007, or his implication in a botched speech that the queen had been around since 1776.
Protocol. It’s important, but there are limits. To be clear, I’m not such an iconoclast that I fail to stand when a woman enters or fail to hold doors open for others.
Yet I believe there will be considerable loosening of these rituals, almost to the point where we can expect the Obamas’ next visit to Buckingham Palace to begin with a fist bump.
Art Trujillo is a copy editor at the Optic and a contributing member of the newspaper’s Editorial Board. He may be reached by calling 425-6796 or by e-mail to email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.