You're probably not familiar with the name John Carlos. But you almost certainly know his image. It's 1968 at the Mexico City Olympics and the medals are being hung round the necks of Tommie Smith (USA, gold), Peter Norman (Australia, silver) and Carlos (USA, bronze). As the Star-Spangled Banner begins to play, Smith and Carlos, two black Americans wearing black gloves, raise their fists in the black power salute. It is a symbol of resistance and defiance, seared into 20th-century history, that Carlos feels he was put on Earth to perform.
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He did much better this year than last. The lanky left handed chief executive threw the first pitch of the season in 2009 and barely reached the catcher. As a baseball player, Barack Obama made a pretty good President.
This is a different year, the 100th anniversary of the first Presidential pitch. The tradition was started by, of all people, William Howard Taft. In 1910 the umpire at Washington's Griffith Stadium, Billy Evans, had a sudden thought. He asked the President if he would like to open the game by throwing the ball over the plate.
There is some dispute over whether President Taft started another lasting tradition. I hope he did, because it illustrates an important truth about the United States, the special station of the presidency in American democracy.
America has never had royalty. It is possible that George Washington could have become the first American king. There was some talk of creating a New World throne for him. Just how much support there was is a great unknown. We simply have no feel today for that long ago balance between hero worship and democratic conviction. But Americans, derisive as they are toward politicians, have a reflexive reverence for the office itself.
Late in the game that April day in 1910, President Taft, a truly massive man (my kind of guy), got really uncomfortable in the small stadium chair. So he stood and stretched. The crowd, respectful, stood as well. That began the every-game tradition, the seventh inning stretch.
American Presidents do establish a cultural tone. John F. Kennedy, just by being there, moved racism in popular consciousness from individually eccentric to reprehensibly evil. Ronald Reagan moved it partway back. With George Bush, conservatives began valuing ignorance as a sort of every-man plain style. "Nuculer" became part of the lexicon.
Some conservatives are in a purple faced fury that the traditional veneration is today bestowed on a remarkably unworthy man. He is intelligent, and he is talented, but he simply isn't right. That is why his policies were all wrong, even before they were known. In an undefined sort of way he was a socialist before health care became a legislative issue. A cottage industry revolves around documenting his arrogance, an overweening self-importance that is invisible to most of us. How DARE he think of himself as worthy of the office.
Yesterday, as we watched him walk to the mound, it seemed to be with a new bounce. Financial reform looks more likely now. The economy is showing promise. The coming election still appears one sided, but the tsunami we anticipated looks less likely. With Health Care Reform, he threw the ball high and outside, not perfect but decidedly better than last year.
The first pitch of a brand new season.
Sentimental Favorite Wins
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