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The Demilitarization of the White House

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Posted on Nov 17, 2009
Modified from an archival White House photo by David Morse

By William Pfaff

I was struck watching television coverage of President Barack Obama on his Asian trip. On his arrival and departure from the cities he visited, he descended and ascended the landing staircase of Air Force One by himself. When it was raining, he carried his own umbrella. Against a stormy sky, the camera caught an emotionally moving image—a solitary figure sheltering himself from the rain.

Where were the aides and orderlies and protocol people and other staff members who usually surround a high official? How could he be allowed out in the rain by himself, unless he had asked that it be so?

It was something on which I have yet to see public comment: the demilitarization of the American presidency, and the demilitarization of the White House during the first nine months of Obama’s term in office.

It is a powerful and symbolic change, even if an unconsidered or uncalculated change from George W. Bush. When Bush made pronouncements, television showed him walking the length of a White House hall to the podium. The hall was on important occasions lined by enlisted members of the uniformed services, in dress or duty uniforms, two of whom would step out to flank the door behind him and frame him personally. He was nearly always accompanied by a commissioned aide de camp, standing to the side as the president spoke. (Possibly the aide was the one who accompanies the president, carrying the nuclear codes; but that would seem an excess inside the White House.)

When President Obama makes a declaration to television and the press, he more often than not walks outside unaccompanied.


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It is not just that Bush liked uniforms and military folderol, having deliberately foreshortened his own experience of them in the Texas Air National Guard, so as to be spared the onerous experience of active duty in the war then going on.

We also know that he constructed his administration in many of its more deplorable aspects on the foundation of his claim to be “a war president,” just like Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln, possessing in his sole person the totality of the power of the “unitary executive” of American government—a subversive doctrine, if there ever was one, and one that should be, but probably won’t be, struck down by the Supreme Court at its first opportunity.

The idea of being a war president pleased the little boy in him, and probably was his unconscious or repressed compensation for having been a slacker in the Vietnam War, just like his vice president, Dick Cheney, and his predecessor, William Jefferson Clinton, but unlike his naval hero father, George H.W. Bush.

The younger Bush was very good with his smart salutes in response to those of the Marines welcoming him or taking leave of him when he used his Marine Corps helicopter. Had he thought of it, he probably would have ordered up a naval bosun’s mate to whistle him aflight and aground.

The Marines saluted as salutes are meant to be employed.

They are an act of deference or respect of a military person to his superior when addressing, or being addressed by, the latter, or in acknowledging an order, or in taking leave of the superior, or in simple greeting to a fellow officer, who may in turn salute in acknowledgment.

There is a certain amount of rigamarole in various services or regiments or national armies as to whether you salute indoors as well as outdoors, or unhatted as well as hatted. The one universal rule is that civilians do not salute military officers. An American civilian acknowledges a military person’s salute with a nod or smile, and, instead of saluting, places his hand on his heart when the national anthem is played. Obama seems to respect this protocol.

It was Ronald Reagan who started presidential saluting. No doubt it was a glamorous reflex going back to his “military service” in Hollywood.

As the historian John Lukacs has written, this revealed a profound change in the American national consciousness. An unwarlike patriot, whose thoughtless good instincts were constructively matched with the personally dangerous reformism of Mikhail Gorbachev, Reagan had a lot to do with making the end of the Cold War possible. But he also formalized the evolution of the American nation from the peaceful and isolated society of before 1941 to the militarized Cold War nation it had become by Reagan’s time, and thereafter remained.

There was a wonderful exhibition of paintings that toured internationally in 2007 displaying the eminences of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, showing Louis XVI, George III, Ferdinand VII of Spain and Pope Pius VII, all with the accouterments and conventional symbols of power, status and remoteness: the pope on his throne; Ferdinand in royal costume with his orders, royal baton in his hand; George III similarly attired in ermine robe and crown and with scepter beside him.

In sober contrast there was a Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington standing in a plain black suit. Next to him is a sheathed sword. His hand touches a document on the table next to him, possibly the Constitution, and a small republican shield ornaments the chair.

This was what it had been all about, to create an American presidency, in a plain suit and with a sheathed sword. Barack Obama as candidate promised to be a president of peace. We may hope that he will so be.

Visit William Pfaff’s Web site at

© 2009 Tribune Media Services, Inc.

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By Ernest, November 19, 2009 at 12:22 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Sanity restored. A small but revealing gesture. Is militarism not yet dead? A journey of 1000 miles begins with a single step.

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By fredmoz, November 19, 2009 at 10:16 am Link to this comment

In the midst of President Obama’s praise, Pfaff innocently flashes this “...Reagan had a lot to do with making the end of the Cold War possible.”
Say what???
President Obama lectures Karzai that words have to be followed by deeds and yet he himself is the master of this folly.

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By MarthaA, November 19, 2009 at 8:11 am Link to this comment

Republican Conservatives stuck by W through it all because he was doing what he was told to do by his base, whereas the Democrats in Congress are not following their base, the people of the Common MAJORITY, at all. It isn’t President Obama that is the problem, it is the Republicans-Lite in Congress that are causing the problem.

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By Sylvia Barksdale, November 19, 2009 at 6:55 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

William Pfaff has an excellent perspective of President Obama here.  Presents a new slant on him and gives credit where it is due.

I am surprised and disappointed that a site such as Truthdig would print insulting and bigoted comments about the president such as montannawildhack’s!  It is simply ugly and unnecessary.

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By Inherit The Wind, November 19, 2009 at 4:59 am Link to this comment

Would someone please explain to me when 8 years of Bush cluster-f***s, 12 years of GOP dominance of Congress, 12-14 years of Alan Greenspan, and 20 years of Supreme Court fascists all vanished overnight last November when Obama was elected?

From the loud complaints that Obama hasn’t done much in a year (though he hasn’t actually BEEN President for even 10 months) to the insistence that he reverse years and years of willful mis-management overnight, we see Dems and “progressives” doing what they have done to EVERY Democratic President since JFK died: They do the Republicans’ job for them of attacking the Democratic President.

From the anti-war campaigns against LBJ that spilled over to discrediting his fantastic, revolutionary domestic policies and legislation, to all the lefties claiming Carter was “impossible”, to the attacks on Clinton, to today, we’ve seen 45 years of Dems sinking their own President.

Meanwhile, DESPITE his screwing them repeatedly, lying to them on issue after issue, undermining their cherished “balanced budget”, the GOPers STILL stuck by their Dumbya to the bitter end.

This is why Dems can no longer rule.  They have to re-learn how to do it.

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By Outraged, November 19, 2009 at 12:28 am Link to this comment

Re: William Pfaff

Quote:  “It is a powerful and symbolic change, even if an unconsidered or uncalculated change from George W. Bush. When Bush made pronouncements, television showed him walking the length of a White House hall to the podium”

I agree.  This is profound, yet unacknowledged.  It signals, very concisely…. change.  While we will have to endure the “supposed” traditionalists because of it, in itself this change is “earth-moving” and signifies so much more than meets the eye.  Very perceptive analysis, well put….thank you.

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By Trailing Begonia, November 18, 2009 at 4:08 pm Link to this comment

If Obama seems to have dropped the military pompousness is only because he’s probably sent them to Afghanistan with “the surge”

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By Bill Jones, November 18, 2009 at 2:13 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

“Barack Obama as candidate promised to be a president of peace. We may hope that he will so be.”

I hate to be picky but wouldn’t he have to end his wars first?

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By ThomasG, November 18, 2009 at 2:03 pm Link to this comment

The Commander in Chief, the President of the United States is the Civilian Leader of the Military.  Militarization of the White House and the President of the United States rendering military salutes and conforming to military protocol implies that the President is a Military Leader and that the Military is in control at the White House, rather than the President of the United States, as Commander in Chief as a Civilian Leader.

The Military in the United States is under the Civilian Control of the Commander in Chief, the President of the United States, and militarization of the White House that presents a frame that the Military is in control at the White House is a threat to Civilian Control of the Military by the President of the United States as a Civilian Commander in Chief.

George W. Bush wanted to frame himself as a Military Leader in a perpetual “war on terror” that would, as a Unitary Executive, eclipse Civilian Leadership and override Congressional Authority; it is good that President Barack Obama is reversing these Right-Wing Bush administration policies, that if left unchecked could have resulted eventually in a Military takeover of control of the U.S. Government.

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By Blueboy1938, November 18, 2009 at 1:20 pm Link to this comment

Unfortunately, President Obama, or whomever he has for a protocol officer, does
not know that an American president does not bow to royalty.  Both the Saudi
king and the Japanese emperor received his obeisance.  I’d almost rather he was
an arrogant pomposity like Bush than to have him do that.  The conservative
hounds are baying at that, and this time I agree with them.  No bowing and
scraping before foreign heads of state, royal or otherwise.

As for the umbrella-toting, he’s just pulling a humbler-than-thou pose a la
Jimmy Carter, who toted his own carry-ons.  It’s comparing apples and oranges to
set that image - the solitary figure fending off the elements - to a president
surrounded by the excessive panoply of office amidst the splendor of the White
House.  It doesn’t mean that he will be any different from Bush, when it comes
right down to it.  Action trumps image.

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By Archie1954, November 18, 2009 at 12:28 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

What you all seem to be missing is the fact that President Obama is up to his neck in alligators that were personally stocked for him in the Whitehouse moat by his predecessor. None of his own agenda will be brought forth until the clean up of the Bushian swamp is complete. That may take another one or two years, who knows at this juncture? Have deaths occurred under the Obama administration? Yes of course they have. It takes a while to turn off the killing tap that was opened wide by Bush but slowly and perhaps soon, quickly it is being turned off.

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By Scotty_Mack, November 18, 2009 at 11:56 am Link to this comment

Everyone who voted for Obama shares a responsibility for the deaths he’s caused and will cause, just as those who voted for Bush helped get a lot of people killed, too.  Voting for the lesser of two evils is still voting for evil, and that’s no choice.  Stop voting for anyone who is an agent of banks, death, and war, no matter which party they belong to, no matter how much marketing they have, no matter what they say in their speeches.  Judge by actions alone.

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By Shift, November 18, 2009 at 10:59 am Link to this comment

Your grasping for straws Pfaff.  Obama is exemplified by poor judgment, lack of vision, economic warfare on poor and working Americans, the highest military budget in history, and Orwellian stage-play.  Get a brain Pfaff or put down the pen.

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By Hulk2008, November 18, 2009 at 9:19 am Link to this comment

Sorry, Purple Girl. 
Once a person reaches the rank of general officer, all former feelings of subservience disappear entirely (if they were ever there to begin with).  Generals do what generals are selected, trained, and groomed by their fellow military establishment to do: they think about aggressively destroying every obstacle in their path - that includes civilian leadership.  As long as Obama and all of his predecessors have made proper obeisance to the Pentagon and their every whim, life goes on (not counting “success” or “victory” in any sense, of course).  Officers are told from the minute they hit OTS that they are superior in every way to grunts and civilians. 

We can only hope that Obama does the rash unpredictable demilitarizing thing:  Get the troops out of Afghanistan and Iraq .... maybe with a temporary bivouac in Pakistan before completely departing. 

We can also thank the electorate for NOT having installed our friend Bomb-bomb-bomb-Iran McCain or Nuke-the-whales-Palin.  We’d not only be stuck with W’s TARP but an 8-front war on EVERYbody.

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By Purple Girl, November 18, 2009 at 8:45 am Link to this comment

I’m dumbfounded that a nation that outright rejected a Military controlled Gov’t is willing to relinquish that credo to ‘Listen to the General’.
Generals are merely meant to follow the Governing Bodies orders. Not policy makers.
Worse to place our country’s entire foreign policy on their singluar view.
To demand only the Military’s wishes be heard and not the various other civilian sectors is not only ludicrious, but utterly UnAmerican.
Washington Rejected the post of “King” and Military dictator. He could have reigned until his death. He chose to have leadership determined by citizenship rather than Bloodlines or Force.
Our global interest extend far beyond the realm of the Armed forces, it is also influenced by economics, cooperation and negotiations.
If we lower ourselve to making international decisions purely on the desires of the Military, we are no different than the Romans.
No big surprise the Military boys want some more ‘toys’ to play with, it’s the only method they understand. It is the civilian democratically elected leadership which acts as the Governing Body.
Our Demcracy was to harness and control the elements of Military Imperialism.
McChrystal is NOT the the POTUS. He does not make Policy because Our Founders Said so!

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By FRTothus, November 18, 2009 at 7:08 am Link to this comment

How about the de-militarization of US foreign policy, Mr Pfaff?  A Presidential Order restoring Posse Comitatus to de-militarize the “riot” police?  An end to the US Global War of Terror?  The nullification of the Enabling, er, I mean Patriot Act? The President abiding by his oath to Preserve Protect and Defend the US Constitution, at the very least, or maybe even Obey?  Can’t write about that, can you, Mr Pfaff?  So instead you serve up this pablum?  Such editorial cowardice is deadly in these times, Sir.  You have a platform, and you waste it. If you have no better use for your column inches, may I suggest reprinting some works by Thomas Paine, or perhaps Howard Zinn, to remind us of the anti-imperial Democratic Republic we once aspired to be.

LostHills said it:  Style is not substance!

“No form of government, once in power, can be trusted to limit its own ambition, to extend freedom and to wither away. This means that it is up to the citizenry, those outside of power, to engage in permanent combat with the state, short of violent, escalatory revolution, but beyond the gentility of the ballot-box, to insure justice, freedom and well being.”
(Howard Zinn)

“What would have happened if millions of American and British people, struggling with coupons and lines at the gas stations, had learned that in 1942 Standard Oil of New Jersey [part of the Rockefeller empire] managers shipped the enemy’s fuel through neutral Switzerland and that the enemy was shipping Allied fuel? Suppose the public had discovered that the Chase Bank in Nazi-occupied Paris after Pearl Harbor was doing millions of dollars’ worth of business with the enemy with the full knowledge of the head office in Manhattan [the Rockefeller family among others?] Or that Ford trucks were being built for the German occupation troops in France with authorization from Dearborn, Michigan? Or that Colonel Sosthenes Behn, the head of the international American telephone conglomerate ITT, flew from New York to Madrid to Berne during the war to help improve Hitler’s communications systems and improve the robot bombs that devastated London? Or that ITT built the FockeWulfs that dropped bombs on British and American troops? Or that crucial ball bearings were shipped to Nazi-associated customers in Latin America with the collusion of the vice-chairman of the U.S. War Production Board in partnership with Goering’s cousin in Philadelphia when American forces were desperately short of them? Or that such arrangements were known about in Washington and either sanctioned or deliberately ignored?”
(Charles Higham)

“Somebody’s paying the corporations that destroyed Iraq and the corporations that are rebuilding it. They’re getting paid by the American taxpayer in both cases. So we pay them to destroy the country, and then we pay them to rebuild it. Those are gifts from U.S. taxpayer to U.S. corporations…”
(Noam Chomsky)

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By RdV, November 18, 2009 at 7:00 am Link to this comment

“President Obama didn’t do all of that, President Obama inherited all of that and is doing what he can to make it better, YOU apparently was comatose during the Bush administration or expect miracles.”

  Sad, isn’t it?

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By MarthaA, November 18, 2009 at 6:48 am Link to this comment

LostHills, Nov.18 at 4:53am,

President Obama didn’t do all of that, President Obama inherited all of that and is doing what he can to make it better, YOU apparently was comatose during the Bush administration or expect miracles.

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By Woody, November 18, 2009 at 6:05 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Have those uniformed men now conspicuous by their absence merely been shuffled over into the line of those 40,000 McChrystal has asked for?

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By montanawildhack, November 18, 2009 at 5:59 am Link to this comment

Right on LostHills!!!

I also do not give a rat’s ass who salutes this Uncle Tom or carries his umbrella…  This kind of theater makes him More evil, not less, than George Bush…..  And don’t kid yourselves that it’s all not theater….  Nothing this hustler does or says isn’t calculated out to the nth degree….. He is a war criminal who gets his marching orders not from the American people but from Tel Aviv…..  Get the hell out of Iraq and Afghanistan and put a lid on Israeli Hubris….  End rant…..

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By RdV, November 18, 2009 at 5:48 am Link to this comment

Obama may not employ the props but he has his own masters who prefer to stay out of view while they pull his strings.

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By Nicholas, November 18, 2009 at 4:34 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

LostHills -

You put the blame squarely on Obama’s shoulders? How short your memory is. He has not delivered all he promised, no. Will he? Only time will tell. Though, to hold him responsible for all our country’s ailments, both foreign and domestic, is foolish.

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By Howie Bledsoe, November 18, 2009 at 4:18 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Yeah, and he doesnt wear an American flag button, doesnt celebrate christmas, bla,bla,bla….. Although this is a token gesture,
it was not the change I was hoping for.

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By Ouroborus, November 18, 2009 at 3:11 am Link to this comment

TAO Walker, November 17 at 11:53 pm #

For most of us real change isn’t easy or necessarily in
our world view. True change generally results from
catastrophic events in our lives. But the very act of
denial in our day to day lives will bring about the
very catastrophic events we so desperately try to ignore/avoid. The irony isn’t lost on me.

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By LostHills, November 18, 2009 at 12:53 am Link to this comment

Style is not substance.
Obama’s record so far is that he has hit two milestones for highest number of American deaths in Afghanistan. He’s broken records on unemployment, too. This week we hit a new record for military suicides. I don’t give a rat’s ass who carries his umbrella or who salutes this war criminal. He’s got to go.

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By MarthaA, November 17, 2009 at 9:50 pm Link to this comment

If President Obama thought he needed more people walking with him, he would request them, apparently he doesn’t feel any need to show pompousness, as does all Republicans.

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By jj, November 17, 2009 at 7:58 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Are you serious?

Is this really what you were hoping for during the elections
when Obama was preaching about Change? ...
A series of meaningless symbolic gestures
designed for the tv cameras and naive reporters.
Why would you celebrate this theater
while ignoring his actual record of waging war
which is in no way a change from the Bush era.

Honestly, if I wanted this sort of nonsense I could watch CNN.

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By TAO Walker, November 17, 2009 at 7:53 pm Link to this comment

Where there’s Life there’s always a chance any Person, no matter how bound-up in the toils of the death-cult that is “civilization,” will respond to Her promptings instead.  As the disintegration of the CONtraption becomes harder and harder to deny, there’s no reason to believe Barack Obama, father and husband, brother and friend, will be any less likely than any of us to go The Tiyoshpaye Way.

He ought to know better than anybody how really “power”-less is the position he presently occupies, anyway.  Well, his wife and children probably have a pretty good idea by now, too.

This old savage wishes them all, along with every “individual” still stuck in the land of make-believe, the best of luck.


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