Among the many quirky, independent movie stars and suave entertainment icons appearing at the pre-inaugural Lincoln Memorial concert for Barack Obama, Tiger Woods stood out like George Will in New York’s West Village.
Talk about change. Normally, Woods sees the political world the way Dick Cheney sees the Bill of Rights: frightening and to be avoided at all costs. He’s probably never even been to the nation’s capital without a golf club in hand or a Nike swoosh on his clothing. His presence at the inauguration–while bracing–was, in a bizarre way, all too fitting.
Barack Obama has been compared to Tiger Woods numerous times. Their backgrounds as multi-racial men achieving success in predominantly white fields are far too tempting for lethargic editorial writers to overlook. During the 2008 general election McCain supporters also embraced the comparison. In April, former Army staff sergeant David Bellavia told a rally of right-wing veterans, “You can have your Tiger Woods, we’ve got Senator McCain.” So there Woods was, squaring the circle and coming to DC to say his piece.
At first, I was glad to see him there. I have been critical of the superstar, whom many consider history’s greatest golfer, because even though he usually shies away from politics, he has often callously embraced political imagery when it serves his endorsement needs. Woods has even occasionally sought to commodify the very civil rights movement that made it possible for him to waltz through country club doors as a young man.
Most infamously there were the “I am Tiger Woods” ads, in which a rainbow coalition of children told the world that they, too, could be Tiger Woods. This harkened back to the finale of Spike Lee’s film Malcolm X, where black children from both the United States and Africa stood up and said, “I am Malcolm X.” An old Black Panther film about the police assassination of Fred Hampton, in which one child after another said, “I am Fred Hampton,” inspired that scene. If Woods deems the black freedom struggle appropriate enough to exploit while selling Nike products, then he ought to highlight it in more relevant ways as well. So I was hopeful that Woods would attempt to repay a debt with his appearance in the shadow of the Great Emancipator.
The press has been rapturous in its reviews of the Woods speech. John Canzano of The Oregonian wrote:
Gone is the hollow, old Woods who was so concerned with his marketing capital that he refused to take a stand on women in golf, much less on race, religion, politics or human rights. He was replaced with a guy who talked intelligently about Obama, the country’s future and his father’s military friends, who Woods said showed dedication and love for their country.
He then praised the 33-year-old Woods for “coming of age.”
But the actual content of the speech was tepid as weak tea, a bland tribute to standing for the troops that could have been given by any Republican or Democrat at any point over the last fifty years. He said:
Each day–and particularly on this historic day–we honor the men and women in uniform who serve our country and protect our freedom…. Just as they have stood tall for our country, we must always stand by and support the men and women in uniform and their families.
To praise this speech as a political coming-out party is to set the bar so low a ladybug couldn’t limbo beneath it.
Woods also spoke about his father, a veteran, who had served two tours in Vietnam. The irony is that the late Earl Woods returned from Vietnam with an Asian wife and a dream that his son Eldrick could leverage a golf career to become the next Gandhi. I don’t think Gandhi would have made the speech that Tiger made.
What was most troubling about Woods’s words was that they were an extended tribute not to the troops but to the military itself. It was almost a recruitment pitch. Woods said, before introducing the US Naval Academy glee club, “I am a son of a man who dedicated his life to his country, his family and the military and I am a better person for it.” I couldn’t help think that the Pentagon announced January 18 that all active-duty and reserve components, as well as the Army National Guard, met or exceeded their goals for the first time since 2004. The main reason? The tanking economy.
At a time when the US is fighting two wars, flirting with another in Pakistan and indirectly funding the carnage in Gaza, we need to be building movements against militarism, not cheering on the Pentagon just because Barack Obama is in charge or because Tiger Woods says so. Let’s save our cheers for those who walk in the path of Muhammad Ali, John Carlos, Steve Nash, Etan Thomas and Athletes United for Peace–all of whom say, without equivocation, “Bring the troops home.”