The presidency of George W. Bush is collapsing under the weight of its own incompetence. The polls speak for themselves–only 35 percent of us approve of his job performance. Fifty-six percent–including one in four Republicans–say the war in Iraq was not worth fighting, and more than half believe Bush intentionally misled the country to bring the United States into war. The response from the White House has been grimly predictable: Admit no mistakes and spin, slash or burn your critics. On Monday Bush seethed, “Only one person manipulated evidence and misled the world–and that person was Saddam Hussein.” (Funny, I didn’t know we were being “led” by Saddam Hussein.) Bush went on to accuse opponents of rewriting the past. But this Administration, which has redefined the word “Orwellian” for a new generation, respects history about as much as it respects the Geneva Conventions. In fact, they seem to relish assaulting and rewriting history for sheer sport.
This was seen quite clearly on November 9, when Bush hung a medal around the slack, immobile neck of former heavyweight boxing champion–and the most famous war resister in US history–Muhammad Ali. Ali was one of a bevy of recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom at a White House ceremony. Bush, while Karl Rove and Donald Rumsfeld chuckled behind him, said, “Only a few athletes are ever known as the greatest in their sport, or in their time. But when you say, ‘The Greatest of All Time’ is in the room, everyone knows who you mean. It’s quite a claim to make, but as Muhammad Ali once said, ‘It’s not bragging if you can back it up.’ And this man backed it up…. The real mystery, I guess, is how he stayed so pretty. [Laughter.] It probably had to do with his beautiful soul. He was a fierce fighter and he’s a man of peace.”
As I watched a video of the ceremony posted on the White House website, it was heartbreaking to see Bush, a chicken-hearted man of empire, bathe himself in Ali’s glow and rhapsodize about “peace.” To see the once-indomitable Ali, besieged by Parkinsons and dementia, eyes filmed over, hands shaking, led around by a self-described “war President” felt horrifying.
About the only thing Bush and Ali have in common is that they both moved mountains to stay out of Vietnam. The difference, of course, was while Ali sacrificed his title and risked years in federal prison, Bush joined the country club otherwise known as the Texas National Guard, showing up for duty every time he had a dentist appointment. But the Champ still had one last rope-a-dope up his sleeve. As a playful Bush moved in front of Ali, he apparently thought it would be cute to put up his fists in a boxing stance. Ali leaned back and made a circular motion around his temple, as if the President must be crazy to want to tangle with him even now.
This moment recalled the Ali who was never so beloved, so cuddly, so harmless. This was a fleeting glimpse of the Ali who once was able to say things that would have made John Ashcroft demand a federally funded exorcism. This was the Ali who said, “I ain’t no Christian. I can’t be when I see all the colored people fighting for forced integration get blown up. They get hit by the stones and chewed by dogs and then these crackers blow up a Negro church…. People are always telling me what a good example I would be if I just wasn’t Muslim. I’ve heard over and over why couldn’t I just be more like Joe Louis and Sugar Ray [Robinson]. Well, they are gone and the black man’s condition is just the same, ain’t it? We’re still catching hell.”
Back then, Ali could level criticism about an ill-advised, unfair war: “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights? No, I’m not going 10,000 miles from home to help murder and burn another poor nation simply to continue the domination of white slave masters of the darker people the world over. This is the day when such evils must come to an end. I have been warned that to take such a stand would cost me millions of dollars. But I have said it once and I will say it again. The real enemy of my people is here. I will not disgrace my religion, my people or myself by becoming a tool to enslave those who are fighting for their own justice, freedom and equality…. If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people, they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail, so what? We’ve been in jail for 400 years.”
If Ali had said things like that today about our current war, it would have earned him not not a medal but a one-way trip to Gitmo.
As the great poet Sonia Sanchez remembered Ali’s golden era, “It’s hard now to relay the emotion of that time. This was still a time when hardly any well-known people were resisting the draft. It was a war that was disproportionately killing young black brothers, and here was this beautiful, funny poetical young man standing up and saying no! Imagine it for a moment! The heavyweight champion, a magical man, taking his fight out of the ring and into the arena of politics and standing firm. The message was sent!”
Perhaps a far more fitting and true tribute to Ali was on display at an antiwar demonstration last month, where an older woman of African descent held up a sign that read simply, “No Iraqi ever left me to die on a roof.” This was a direct reference to a quote attributed to Ali that “no Vietnamese ever called me ‘nigger.’ ” Both statements in a few short words encompass both the anger and internationalism so needed today. These are statements not of pacifism but of the struggle to end war. This is the Ali that they can never bury–not even under the pall of devastating illness and a mountain of cheap medals.