Trump and Race: Suspicious Minds
Hating on Donald Trump is a full-time endeavor for many in politics and the media, especially the media. His critics condemn him when he screws up, which is often, and when he does good things, too. The most committed Trump-haters excoriate him for actions they’d previously demanded from him – or wanted his predecessors to take.
For decades, liberal activists have hoped, for example, that Jack Johnson, the early 20th century heavyweight champion of the world, would be pardoned for his conviction under the Mann Act, a 1910 law originally aimed at preventing pimps from taking underage girls or women across state lines for prostitution or other “immoral purposes.” Johnson traveled with his girlfriend, the underlying “crime” being that she was white.
Yet when President Trump did what President Obama declined to do, which was pardon Jack Johnson posthumously, this act was denounced as a “con job” that induced “race-baiting whiplash,” whatever that is. Dave Zirin, the writer who coined that phrase, concluded that Jack Johnson would have rejected a presidential pardon. This seems absurd, but Zirin revealed his real objection: “Johnson’s pardon is long overdue,” he wrote. “But it’s a shame it came from this president.”
Actually, it’s fitting it was Trump. A fan of prize fighting, he hosted title bouts at his New Jersey casinos, hung out with boxing promoter Don King and former champ Mike Tyson. It was Sylvester Stallone, portrayer of mythical champ Rocky Balboa, who brought Jack Johnson to Trump’s attention. When Trump announced the pardon in the Oval Office, Stallone was there, along with real fighters Lennox Lewis and Deontay Wilder. After all, who doesn’t like Rocky, right?
Well, I should have posed that question a year ago. After Stallone started hobnobbing with Trump, he was hit with a 30-year-old charge of sexual assault by a Santa Monica woman. The corroborating witnesses she cited didn’t back her up, so no charges were filed – but his name was linked to the #MeToo movement anyway.
Such collateral damage isn’t a rare occurrence in the Trump era. After Hurricane Katrina, Kanye West said that George W. Bush didn’t care about black people. This was manifestly untrue, but liberals were cool with it. When Kanye appeared at this White House with this president, it was another story. African-American progressives – on CNN, naturally –hurled racial insults at Trump’s bestie. Kanye is the White House “token Negro,” snarked Tara Setmayer. Another CNN commentator, Bakari Sellers, a former Democratic legislator from South Carolina, said, “Kanye West is what happens when Negroes don’t read.”
Kanye West is a grown man who, unlike the deceased Jack Johnson, can speak for himself. But now the Trump-haters have gone too far. This time, they’ve gone after Elvis Presley. I’m not kidding.
On Friday, Trump awarded Elvis and six other Americans the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Two days earlier, the Washington Post’s music critic wrote that Trump was using the honor as a “cultural cudgel.”
“Trump is sending a message here,” he added, “another…little nod to the good old days, back when black visionaries could invent rock-and-roll, but only a white man could become the king. Yes, this overture looks ugly to anyone who feels antagonism and regression radiating from Trump’s promise to ‘make America great again.’”
That musical history-by-Twitter by someone who ought to know better reminds me of a certain Oval Office politician -- and it was unfair to the other honorees. They were former pro football stars Roger Staubach and Alan Page, baseball legend Babe Ruth, and three figures from conservative politics: deceased Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, retiring U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, and Miriam Adelson, a physician and philanthropist – and wife of billionaire Las Vegas political mega-donor Sheldon Adelson.
In the wake of the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre it was gratifying to see Mrs. Adelson singled out for something other than her contributions to GOP campaigns. She funds research into fighting substance abuse, helped start the Adelson Medical Research Foundation, and supports Jewish schools and causes, including Holocaust memorials.
The jocks were impressive too. Staubach and Page are more than football players: “Roger the Dodger” played at the Naval Academy, where he won the Heisman Trophy, then served five years in the U.S. Navy before reporting to duty with the Dallas Cowboys where he won Super Bowls and All-Pro honors. Page, who is African-American, was a superb Minnesota Vikings defensive lineman who went to law school after leaving football and wound up on the Minnesota Supreme Court.
The recognition of Babe Ruth was long overdue. He not only changed the game of baseball forever, but was a crossover cultural icon – and the rare white player of his generation who wasn’t afraid to compete with the best black ballplayers of the era. He also visited black children’s hospitals and, according to one biographer, wasn’t hired to manage after his retirement because the owners knew he’d advocate breaking baseball’s color barrier. “He carried this country on his back during the Great Depression,” wrote another chronicler of the Ruth saga.
As for Elvis, although a 50th anniversary of rock music in 2004 turned into a celebration of the king, he didn’t “invent” rock ’n’ roll any more than Abner Doubleday invented baseball. Unlike Doubleday, though, Elvis was there for the founding, and knew better than most how much the new form was influenced by rhythm and blues, gospel music, and the mountain fiddling tunes of Appalachia.
Assessing the varied roots of modern American music, Little Richard once explained, "The blues had an illegitimate baby and we named it rock-and-roll.” Longtime journalist Jack Newfield called that description “a fair and clever summary of what happened between 1949 and 1954, when black and white musical traditions cross-educated each other.”
"No one person started rock 'n' roll," Newfield added. "It was a black and white alloy of Fats Domino, Lloyd Price, Ike Turner, Hank Williams, Joe Turner, Louis Jordan, Ray Charles, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Buddy Holly -- and Elvis Presley."
Actually, it was more than black and white, lest we slight the contributions of Mexican mariachi music and Spanish flamenco guitar, which infused rock music in the early years most conspicuously in the person of California prodigy Richard Steven Valenzuela, whom you know as Ritchie Valens.
Growing up on the West Coast, I was too young to appreciate Elvis -- and Ritchie Valens was gone when I came of age. Although the Beach Boys were my first band, my heroes were baseball players, one sublime Giant in particular. Years later, when Bay Area musician John Fogarty produced a hit song called “Centerfield,” I initially assumed the refrain -- “and rounding third and heading for home, it’s a brown-eyed handsome man” -- referred to Willie Mays.
The line is originally from Chuck Berry, who used it in a 1956 song titled “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man.” The player he’d have had in mind could have been Mays, but more likely it was Jackie Robinson. In any event, Elvis knew the song. In the “Million Dollar Quartet” – the famous 1956 jam session at Sun Records with Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash -- they cheerfully played Berry’s number.
What it brings to mind now are the words of famed baseball announcer Ernie Harwell. “In baseball, democracy shines its clearest,” he said. “The only race that matters is the race to the bag. The creed is the rule book. And color, merely something to distinguish one team’s uniform from another’s.”
We could use more of that attitude in the press box these days.