DEAR MISS MANNERS: If a lady is being presented to the president of the United States and his wife in a formal setting, what rules must be followed in order not to offend, or attract the attention of the Secret Service?
Should she extend a hand to the president, or wait until he does so? Is it permissible to look him full in the face, or should she cast her eyes down demurely while murmuring a polite greeting? Are the rules the same for his wife?
And speaking of greeting, one’s assumption would be that “Good evening, Mr. President” would be acceptable for him, but how does one address his wife? Mrs./Madam President? Mrs. First Lady? Mrs. Obama? (My assumption is that “Hey Michelle” would not be a good idea.)
I want to make my country, and Miss Manners, proud.
GENTLE READER: A worthy thought, for which Miss Manners thanks you. She presumes that you also take pride in being the citizen of a country that distinguishes respect from obsequiousness and allows us to look our leaders full in the face.
After some debate, our Founding Fathers ruled that court etiquette, with its flowery titles and knee-bending to superiors, was not fitting for a dignified republic. Therefore, our highest official is not His Extraordinarily Important Worship, but, as you note, simply “Mr. President.”
His wife, although popularly known as the First Lady, is legally a private citizen with no official title to go with what have come to be enormous responsibilities. The only concession is that she is THE Mrs. Obama, as opposed to any other lady who might happen to have that surname, so should be addressed in writing, as well as face-to-face, without using a given name. Woodrow Wilson’s wife had two sets of cards: “Mrs. Woodrow Wilson” after he left office, but just “Mrs. Wilson” during his presidency.
And don’t worry about the handshake. Royal subjects are forbidden to initiate any form of touch with their sovereigns, but Americans find that their leaders, being politicians, are only too eager to shake hands. He will probably have his out faster than yours.