I never ceased to enjoy reviewing our men and women in uniform and hope I started a new tradition for presidents. As commander in chief, I discovered it was customary for our uniformed men and women to salute whenever they saw me. When I'd walk down the steps of a helicopter, for example, there was always a marine waiting there to salute me. I was told presidents weren't supposed to return salutes, so I didn't, but this made me feel a little uncomfortable.
Normally, a person offering a salute waits until it is returned, then brings down his hand. Sometimes, I realized, the soldier, sailor, marine, or airman giving me a salute wasn't sure when he was supposed to lower his hand. Initially, I nodded and smiled and said hello and thought maybe that would bring down the hand, but usually it didn't. Finally, one night when Nancy and I were attending a concert at the Marine Corps headquarters, I told the commandant of marines, "I know it's customary for the president to receive these salutes, but I was once an officer and realize that you're not supposed to salute when you're in civilian clothes. I think there ought to be a regulation that the president could return a salute inasmuch as he is commander in chief and civilian clothes are his uniform."
"Well, if you did return a salute," the general said, "I don't think
anyone would say anything to you about it."
The next time I got a salute, I saluted back. A big grin came over the
marine's face and down came his hand. From then on, I always returned salutes.
When George Bush followed me into the White House, I encouraged him to
keep up the tradition.