Does President Obama Have Bad Manners?
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We want to take up some noteworthy international news now. In a few minutes, we'll go to India where the Supreme Court reinstated a ban on gay sex - actually, what it called unnatural acts. We'll talk about what that means for the LGBT community there, but also the reaction the ruling has gotten in the country on the whole. That's later. First though, we want to talk about the memorial service in Johannesburg earlier this week.
World leaders gathered there to pay their respects to the late South African leader Nelson Mandela. Now what caught the attention of many Americans, aside from the poignant remarks, were the selfies and the handshakes. President Obama came under heavy criticism in this country for shaking the hand of Cuban President Raul Castro - Fidel Castro's brother - at the event and also for posing for a selfie with other dignitaries. We wondered about this uproar, whether it's making an impact in etiquette circles. So we called upon Dorothea Johnson, the founder of the Protocol School of Washington, to find out. Dorothea Johnson, welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.
DOROTHEA JOHNSON: Well, thank you so much for having me, Michel.
MARTIN: Now for decades, you've taught protocol to people at the highest levels of government, you know, as well as to other citizens who might be business leaders, for example, who might be traveling overseas. So the first thing I wanted to take up was something that has gotten a lot of attention from political people - President Obama shaking hands with Raul Castro, the president of Cuba, when he was in the receiving line. Some people say that that was just inappropriate given our relations with Cuba. Could the president have avoided this?
JOHNSON: He could have. I think it would've created even bigger outcry among people if he had. It just was not the diplomatic thing to do to refuse to shake his hand. I think it would have been ridiculous if he had.
MARTIN: Well, the Republican senator John McCain of Arizona likened it to shaking hands with Hitler. I just wondered if you had any thoughts about that.
JOHNSON: But this was a memorial for a man, for his legacy. And forgiveness was his theme, I think, throughout his life. And I do not believe President Obama could have avoided shaking hands with him, while everybody else is in line shaking hands, how could he possibly?
MARTIN: Well, this isn't the first time - conservatives have complained that the president is too deferential to some foreign leaders, for example, that some criticize him for what they believed was bowing to Saudi King Abdullah and the former Chinese president Hu Jintao. But both are considerably shorter than he is. And so in that instance, do you feel that it was appropriate for him to incline himself towards someone who is of lesser height? Or is there - I guess, what I'm asking you, is there some diplomatic consequence to that? Or is that just good manners, if there is such a thing as good manners apart from politics?
JOHNSON: Yes, well, of course. I don't think he should have bowed to the king of Saudi Arabia. But he is so tall, and perhaps he looked as if he was bowing. I'm not trying to defend, but I think we have to take into consideration because of his height, he looked as if he was bowing.
MARTIN: I see. And let's talk about the selfies - the photographs that President Obama was seen taking with former Prime Minister David Cameron, the Danish prime minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt. What is your take on this? I mean, some people thought that was just entirely too casual for such an event.
JOHNSON: I agree. I agree, and I've seen this so much in the entertainment industry. My granddaughter's an actress, and Stella McCartney gave us a party for our book signing December the 3rd. And more selfies were jumping next to Liv and holding the camera up. So this is done so much in the entertainment industry, but I think it was totally out of order at this occasion - my personal opinion, mind you.
MARTIN: Well, now there are others who disagree. They say that, for example, one of the professional photographers who captured the world leaders taking these pictures said that the - it wasn't unusual in that atmosphere at all because the atmosphere was actually quite joyous. It was considered a - it actually was a celebratory event in keeping with kind of the overall mood, a celebration of the life of Mandela. It was not a somber event in that he did not find it odd. In fact, he wasn't taking those pictures to criticize them for doing so. Does that change your perspective on it at all?
JOHNSON: Not really. Not really.
MARTIN: Or you feel they should have set a different standard?
JOHNSON: I just think there is a place for everything. And what I thought was quite noticeable was Mrs. Obama. She did not look too pleased.
MARTIN: Yeah, and how do you interpret that? You felt that she was kind of trying to signal that perhaps this was not the appropriate thing.
JOHNSON: I thought - yes, I do. I do believe that because I think perhaps she was feeling a bit left out. Mind you, that's just my opinion.
MARTIN: Well, what could he have done if, say, the British prime minister, David Cameron, wanted to take a picture with him. What do you think he should have done? Should he have declined gracefully? Should he have said, not now, David? You know, what should he have done?
JOHNSON: Well, there were so many professional photographers there. But who knows how something like that comes about. It was simply a spur of the moment. Let me take a picture, and that's it. And I think we're just making too, too much of it.
MARTIN: What - you think over all that we're making too much of it. Or do you think it is appropriate to highlight that kind of conduct?
JOHNSON: Well, no, I don't. I don't - certainly, I think that people need to have their opinion. It makes news. And that's the whole point of publications, newspapers and whatever. And I do believe that it was just a spur of the moment act. I do not think it was anything planned. I've seen it so, so much in the entertainment industry.
MARTIN: Before we let you go, this is the time of year when many people will be attending lots of kinds of events. And, you know, sadly people do pass away during the holidays, which are otherwise joyous times. It is necessary to attend events that are not always going to be kind of lighthearted and, you know, happy events. Do you have general advice for people who may be attending these kinds of events and aren't sure what's appropriate? For example, if someone wants to take a picture at a memorial service or something of the sort, how would you handle that?
JOHNSON: I would try to do it very discreetly, away from the crowd if it is at all possible. And if it's someone well - that is well-known being - memorial for someone very well-known or a funeral, indeed, I would try not to, because taking a picture often is distracting - the flashing of the bulb when you take it. So I would certainly say be discreet if one is going to do that.
MARTIN: And just to clarify, I just want to be sure that I emphasize that David Cameron is the current prime minister of Britain, not the former. I think I may have misspoken earlier.
JOHNSON: He is the current, yes.
MARTIN: I just want to be sure that I clarified that.
MARTIN: Dorothea Johnson is the founder of the Protocol School of Washington. We go to her for clarity on all matters of etiquette. She's the author of "Modern Manners: Tools to Take You to the Top," co-written with her granddaughter, Liv Tyler. And she was kind enough to join us from her home office, which is in Maine. Dorothea Johnson, thank you so much for joining us.
JOHNSON: Thank you so much for having me.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.