NEW YORK – In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt invited naturalist John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club, to be his guide for his famous camping trip through Yosemite National Park. Muir was about to decline when a friend warned him that one must always accept the president’s invitation.
Muir was offended by this notion, because it seemed to treat the president like a king. In the end, Muir decided to make the journey after all: “I suppose I shouldn’t refuse just because he happens to be president,” he said.
This apocryphal quote, from a 1924 account by journalist Bailey Millard, came to mind after three members of the undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins chose to boycott a White House ceremony honoring the football team.
The visit, long overdue, was almost overshadowed by the controversy over the absent players, who declined to join their teammates in order to register their disapproval of the policies of President Barack Obama.
The missing Dolphins were excoriated because they “turned their decision into a political statement” — that is, they stated their reasons publicly — and because they “put their own political views ahead of being with their friends and former teammates.”
Other critics, wanting to show how immature professional athletes have become, compiled lists of sports stars who have declined presidential invitations in recent years. The offenders include stars from football, motor racing, golf and hockey.
And the boycotting has been bipartisan, as when the coach of the 2008 U.S. women’s soccer team, which won the Olympic gold medal, refused to go to the White House because of disagreements with President George W. Bush’s policies.
The subtext of the controversy is that these dissenters are engaging in behavior that is inappropriate and perhaps rude. Certainly, declining a presidential invitation has long been viewed as a faux pas. How serious a faux pas?
“Manners That Win,” an etiquette guide published in 1880, warns the reader that if you decline the president’s invitation to dinner, “the note of regret must state the cause, so that it may be clear that your reason is a grave one.”
A bit over a century later, in a 1988 Miss Manners column, Judith Martin said much the same: “Only illness, a death in the family, or hardship in making the trip are legitimate excuses for declining such an august invitation.”
But turning down invitations from the president of the U.S., although rare, is also a practice as old as the country.
In the early years of the republic, Rep. Artemas Ward, a hero of the Revolutionary War, refused all invitations to dine with President George Washington. Ward believed Washington to be the author of an insulting letter published anonymously in a newspaper during the conflict.
Other historical examples abound. In the late 19th century, suffragist leader Lucy Stone refused to attend a reception given by President Grover Cleveland, whose fathering of a child out of wedlock she labeled “an affront to decent women.”
In June 1965, the poet Robert Lowell declined to visit Lyndon Johnson’s White House Festival of the Arts as a protest against the Vietnam War.
In March of that same year, although not as an act of protest, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. declined Johnson’s invitation to be present in the gallery for the president’s speech to a joint session of Congress calling for passage of the Voting Rights Act. King chose instead to remain with his fellow protesters in Selma, Alabama.
Military men are, in theory, subject to the president’s orders. Nevertheless, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, after receiving his fifth Distinguished Service Medal in a ceremony on Wake Island, turned down President Harry Truman’s invitation to stay for lunch, citing the urgent need to return to Japan.
In 1979, Gen. Edward Rowny, who had represented the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the SALT II negotiations, declined President Jimmy Carter’s invitation to attend the signing ceremony as a protest against a deal that, in Rowny’s judgment, gave too much away.
But perhaps the best known incident came in April 1865, when Gen. Ulysses S. Grant and his wife declined Abraham Lincoln’s invitation to attend a performance of “Our American Cousin” at Ford’s Theater the night Lincoln was shot.
Although the stated reason was Grant’s desire to visit his children, the true reason, according to historian Michael Burlingame, is that first lady Mary Todd Lincoln had been incensed when, at their last joint appearance, Grant had been cheered more loudly than the president. The general, quite wisely, “feared incurring her displeasure once more.”
Given this history, what accounts for our lingering attachment to the proposition that there is something wrong with refusing a presidential invitation?
Perhaps we are sensing a constitutional truth that is easy to forget in our hyperpartisan era: The president is not only the head of government but also the head of state.
When we publicly disagree with a president’s policies, we are criticizing, quite properly, the head of government. When the president acts in his institutional role as head of state, however, he is entitled, regardless of party or policy, to the sort of presumptive respect owed to the flag and the national anthem.
Dissenters have the right and often the responsibility to speak up when they think the president is wrong. The case for declining a White House invitation because of political disagreement is nevertheless weakest when the occasion is purely ceremonial — when the president is acting as head of state.
Alas, ours is a time when schoolchildren are scarcely required to salute the flag and multimillionaire sports stars cannot be bothered to stop chewing gum during the singing of the anthem.
Perhaps the era of presumptive respect for national symbols is over.
If so, then the president can hardly expect to be left out.
Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist and a professor of law at Yale University. He is the author of “The Violence of Peace: America’s Wars in the Age of Obama” and the novel “The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln.” Follow him on Twitter at @StepCarter. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.