Wednesday, January 25, 2012

When A Protest Falls Somewhere Besides the Rose Garden, Does It Make a Sound? No.

Tim Thomas has a lot to answer for. Anyone who gives sports commentators an excuse to talk politics has committed a grave disservice to humanity.

There are two normal reactions to Thomas' decision to skip the White House ceremony honoring the Bruins for their 2011 Stanley Cup triumph because the goalie is EXTREMELY unhappy with the policies of President Barack Obama, and I had them both and in the proper order, that being a) who cares? and b) that's his business isn't it?. We got rights in this country, even Vezina Trophy winners.

It was sort of refreshing that the third Boston jock in history to skip a White House team ceremony had semi-coherent political motives for doing so. When Larry Bird stood up Ronald Reagan in 1984, a bad hangover was almost surely the reason. When Manny Ramirez stood up George W. Bush in 2008, well, your guess is as good as mine.

Then I had a third reaction, a mild bit of wistful sadness on behalf of Thomas himself. The Bruins' goalie was the only person affected in the slightest by his gesture of protest, and while it doubtless made him feel good and full of righteous satisfaction last Monday, in time he may come to see that day as the missed opportunity it was.

I assure you Barack Obama doesn't care that Thomas stood him up. Pols are very used to snubs, and millionaire professional athletes are not the demographic David Axelrod is counting on to sweep Obama into a second term come November. If Obama's a hockey fan, he's hiding it well. I don't think we've ever had a real hockey fan as President. Coolidge, perhaps?

Nor will those celebrating Thomas as a principled hero do so for very long. It is the nature of the overly political person that there's a new hero/outrage every day. Should Thomas let in three goals in a period next Tuesday against Ottawa, public opinion will not be concerned with his views on society.

All that will be left is that Thomas's teammates will have the memory of a pleasant ceremony where the President of the United States made a minor fuss over them while they had their picture taken, and he will not. And it's all due to a terrible if terribly common misunderstanding.

Like most of his fellow citizens, Thomas does not grasp that the President of the United States, any President, has two different and separate jobs in our political system. One, the big one, is the elected political leader of the executive branch of the U.S. government. THAT'S the Barack Obama Thomas is mad at.

The other Presidential job, less important but no less real, is our ceremonial Head of State, the individual who presides over rituals deemed important by our political system and society. Things like visiting the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on Memorial Day, or hosting the President of Horribledumpistan at state dinners or having little White House moments for Americans who have done a thing.

Some President long before Obama (Carter is the first one I remember, honoring the 1980 Olympic hockey team) decided that having champion sports teams at the White House would be one of those rituals. Like all damn fool political decisions, once it became a tradition, this ritual became impossible to get rid of, and I'm sure other Presidents have wished they could. They're kind of busy.

The point that escaped Thomas is that the ritual ceremonial Head of State President is not political in any sense of the word. He's a purely totemic figure created to satisfy demands of, uh, national etiquette is as good as a phrase as any. Protesting a President by avoiding one of those ceremonies, which has been done by noted figures whose politics lean both right and left, is protesting a person who in a sense is not in the room at the time of said event. It's a gesture without a target, let alone an audience.

All Thomas missed was an occasion where America, in the person of its elected-for-now ceremonial Head of State, expressed the opinion that it admires sports champions, and that he, Tim Thomas, was one. Plus there might have been lunch or at least snacks.

And as time passes, if he and his descendants aren't too busy polishing their sniper rifles and gold bars and cooking canned foods at the Thomas Family Compound near the Montana-Alberta border, Thomas might come to regret passing up that token of his accomplishments.


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