KEEPING UP APPEARANCES
Oct. 22, 2010
CHICAGO -- Appearances are important in most situations, but probably none more so than when the president of the United States goes on a foreign junket.
There is tremendous pressure to show an appreciation of the landscape and culture, and demonstrate willingness to work ever closer together -- all while upholding the gravitas, the very American-ness of the office of the president in an international spotlight.
So is it any wonder that, according to The New York Times, the spin doctors at the White House decided to take a pass on visiting India’s Golden Temple? It is beautiful, historic and revered by the authoritative Frommer's travel guide as "the most tangibly spiritual place in the country." But the deal-breaker was the traditional head covering -- a cloth wrap resembling a turban or head scarf -- required for entry.
In a perfect world, images of an American president taking off his shoes and tying a piece of cloth about his head in reverence to another country's holy site would be a healing moment -- a time to celebrate America’s proud history as a country that is tolerant, even welcoming, of varied religions.
This is not that moment.
Never mind that just months ago, the U.S. Army welcomed its third U.S.-born Sikh recruit in a reversal of a post-Vietnam War policy banning the turbans and beards that Sikhs wear as a part of their faith.
Never mind that Obama is not a Muslim -- though a recent Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life poll found that nearly one in five Americans believes he is.
Though White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said on Wednesday that the schedule for the India trip was not finalized -- leaving the door ajar to the possibility of visiting the Golden Temple -- just imagine the frenzy.
Images of this president with the head covering would ignite exponentially more hysterical fears about his allegiance to the United States than did the picture of him on his 2006 trip to Kenya, wearing the traditional robe and head wrap, which came out during the presidential campaign.
Presidential historian Brandon Rottinghaus of the University of Houston pointed me toward a charming picture of Gerald Ford wearing a Mexican sombrero in the Oval Office circa 1974, and noted that it was a different world then. He recalled a 2008 picture of George W. Bush wearing a Peruvian poncho but added, "My guess is you wouldn’t see a modern president wear very traditional items. Today it’s all about looking presidential.
"For instance, when Bill Clinton was president he would wear sport watches, but his aides eventually got him to wear a leather-banded one. In all moments the president is expected to be a reservoir of dignity and to look presidential."
It’s too bad about the Sikh temple. And now I know I’ll probably go to my grave never spotting an American president in a Burmese longyi skirt, a Libyan fez, or a red Cuban tracksuit either.
Esther Cepeda 's e-mail address is estherjcepeda(at)washpost.com.