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America’s greatest tradition: inventing spurious traditions

From the State of the Union address to the marine’s salute as the president leaves his helicopter, we like nothing better than creating complicated little rituals

28 February 2015

9:00 AM

28 February 2015

9:00 AM


Fredericksburg, Virginia

Americans crave traditions. The older they are the more we cherish them. Thanksgiving, which beats out Christmas, was invented by Abe Lincoln in 1863 but it is an outgrowth of the timeless harvest festival celebrated by the generations of mankind that formed the earliest agricultural communities. Much harder is inventing traditions from something new. In this we are unsurpassed. Take the president’s annual State of the Union address to congress. Ever since Thomas Jefferson’s time, a clerk from the House of Representatives read it in a rapid drone and then left. But in 1917, facing entry into Europe’s first world war, President Woodrow Wilson decided to deliver the address in person. Since then the speech has always been delivered by the president himself, in keeping with tradition.

From then on it was open season on any and every tradition we could invent. A Supreme Court clerk used to hold the Bible at Inauguration; now the first lady does. The president used to wear morning coat and top hat on this day, until 1953 when Eisenhower wore a business suit. In 1961 JFK revived the morning coat and top hat; Johnson and Nixon broke with the new old tradition and wore business suits in keeping with the old new tradition.

Nobody had any doubt what Jimmy Carter would wear, so at his inauguration in 1977 he started the tradition of getting out of the limousine and walking part of the way to the White House. After that they all started getting out and walking (and holding hands with the first lady), including Reagan, who honoured both the new former tradition and the former old tradition in a modified version of morning dress: striped trousers, black suit jacket, soft shirt, and four-in-hand tie. He looked like a man in a mismatched suit.

Very soon thereafter, a plane crashed into the icy Potomac river and a man named Lenny Skutnik who had been walking across the bridge dived in and saved some passengers. The State of the Union address was coming up, so Reagan invited Skutnik to sit in the VIP gallery and introduced him as an ‘American hero’.

That did it. Since then every president has stocked the gallery with heroes of one kind or another — whole groups of them. Any president who doesn’t get his heroes up there can count on being a one-termer, if not impeached.

Reagan did the most for neo-traditions. In the 1930s FDR made regular evening radio addresses called ‘fireside chats’ that held the whole country in thrall. Reagan knew better than to interrupt primetime television, so he gave Saturday morning radio chats. Another instant tradition took root. Since then, every president goes on the radio on Saturday mornings and they always will.

The helicopter salute is Reagan’s most noticeable contribution to tradition-building, as well as the riskiest, which is why everybody watches it to see what happens. The helicopter bringing the president back to the White House from the airport lands in the back yard. A marine in dress blues stands beside the door and salutes as the president gets off and walks down the short flight of steps.

Tradition reared its head when Reagan returned the marine’s salute. I don’t think George H.W. Bush or Clinton did it every time, but George W. made the salute his own and did it religiously. Now Obama is doing it, but matter-of-factly, almost like an afterthought, so that recently he forgot that he had a Big Gulp cup in his right hand and nearly poured its contents over his own head — or worse, over the marine.

If we wanted to get a tradition out of this we already had one: military etiquette says that an officer in civilian clothes does not return a salute, but Reagan did, so no president will ever risk not doing it. The neo–tradition is ours to keep, helped along by the suspense that one day, some president will poke himself in the eye or lose his balance and break his saluting arm in the fall. Bets are being made on how long the marine will hold his salute.

We are so starved for traditions that we can find them in the unlikeliest places. To America’s neo-traditionalists, just sounding traditional is enough, like the lingerie company Victoria’s Secret. The neo-traditionalist thinks that wearing these seductive unmentionables renders her charms timeless. A traditional traditionalist knows better, which is why I shop at Boudicea’s Retreat.

Florence King is the author of Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady and Reflections in a Jaundiced Eye.

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