Dec 31, 2016

December 31, 2016: Life is Made of Patterns, A National Obscenity, No Worse than the Rest

And the pattern still remains
On the wall where darkness fell,
And it's fitting that it should,
For in darkness I must dwell.
Like the color of my skin,
Or the day that I grow old,
My life is made of patterns
That can scarcely be controlled
. “   --Paul Simon

As the election approached, the nation was presented with two grotesque spectacles: the first being the Chicago Cubs in the World Series; the second another, and hopefully the last, presidential contest featuring two bona fide “Boomers” in what became a national embarrassment, a national obscenity, a borderline pornographic contest for the presidency of the United States. 

Much has been written in these columns about the Chicago Cubs (2), a franchise that has, over the decades, made a complete mockery of excellence, indeed an ethic of mediocrity.  That baseball should affront us with the spectacle of the Cubs in the World Series was bad enough, but coinciding as it did with the national obscenity that was, hopefully, the last such contest featuring two legendary members of the “Generation of Swine”, one could clearly sense that the universe had come unhinged; that the natural order has been stood upon it’s head; that, indeed, the last had finished first. 

I began to suspect that something was amiss when the Cubs got off to a great start and held their position atop the National League Central Division.  This anomaly coinciding with the rise of a common carnival barker to the Republican nomination for president of the United States had, by midsummer, cast an ominous pall over the cultural and political landscape.  One began to fear for the worst.  One found oneself beating back the demons by reasoning that the Cubs had, after all, made it as far as the division playoffs, indeed the National League Championship Series, and the Republic survived; and, of course, the nation survived Nixon.  Still fear and loathing swept across the land as we went to the polls in trepidation.

After a series of bruising “debates” during which issues were substituted with what became a series of mud-slinging contests and in which the Republican nominee serially stalked the Democrat on stage, and paraded out a line of women her husband had allegedly abused in effect telling the nation “look, they're no better than I am”.  In the hands of the “Boomers”, the election had degenerated to the point that “Why Not the Best”(3) became replaced with “I am no worse than the rest”.  Both candidates, appealing to identity politics and serial accusations, had lowered the bar to such a level that, in the end, nearly half the voters stayed home.

Not all was quite lost, however.  Trump was demonstrating himself much more adept at alienating voters, doing his level best to lose this election.  As the election approached the polling numbers began to narrow but it was thought that Hillary would, in the end, tough it out.

So as Major League Baseball presented us with the obscenity of the Chicago Cubs in the World Series for the first time since the entire world waged war (and the best players were in the service), and the poll numbers began to narrow, the nation went to the polls and held its collective breath.  As Cleveland took a commanding 3 to 1 lead in the series it had seemed that the country was going to narrowly miss a national catastrophe.

Indeed Nate Silver, the legendary political prognosticator, declared in a headline a week before the election  with Cleveland leading three games to one that Trump had as great a chance of winning the presidency as the Cubs had of winning the world series, roughly one in four.  We all took a deep breath and then exhaled. It was a short-lived relief.

The Cubs then went on a winning streak.  I told my family that this was a serious omen, and that coming with the observable shifts in the planetary magnetic poles and the fact that this economic recovery has reached its historic limits, a Cubs’ victory would certainly mean Donald J. Trump would enter the White House.  I was, of course, dismissed as an alarmist; my audiences failing to see the connections, although historiographer Ken Burns would, I believe, immediately see the obvious.  And, indeed just as the Cubs ‘ran the table’ and won the series, Trump on election night took that very narrow path still afforded him, after he had twitted his way into near oblivion, and ‘ran the table’ by taking enough states to win the election, while decisively losing the popular vote. 

I had seen it coming.  The broader outlines were certainly there for anyone to see.  All Trump had to do, I would, on Facebook, incessantly remind my Democratic friends, was go to the old ‘rustbelt’, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and promise to tear up those trade agreements.  Actually following through is another matter, but by simply promising to do so any candidate could communicate to the afflicted at least a recognition of their plight. This area of the country had been longing for someone in the political elite to at least see and recognize what is before their very eyes. Whatever the ‘solution’, both Bernie Sanders and Trump in separate ways addressed the savaging of the Middle West by this headlong ideological neoliberal movement to globalize the economy.  The Democrats, in acts of inspired stupidity, worked to defeat Sanders and in so doing closed off any viable Democratic alternative by nominating a candidate who, being ‘present at creation’ so to speak, and, in effect, promising more of the same. 

So, as we gathered before our televisions on election night the commentators, fully convinced of the inevitability of the Clinton Restoration, began the night by demonstrating what a long shot this was for Trump and prognosticating how or even if the Republican Party would survive in the aftermath.  Then, one by one, in a near repeat of 2000, the nation watched as Trump and his Republicans ran the table. 

And so with the Cubs now champions of the world, the magnetic polls in uneasy flux, the economy slowing, the global agreements on climate change now in limbo, and Trump and his crypto-fascist, knuckle-dragging minions about to enter the White House, the foundations of the republic can be heard to crack. I suspected as much when the Cubs rose above their natural station.  I could see the reaction in those about me, as if it was some kind of tin-hat conspiracy theory.  However, I earnestly retorted, “go ask Ken Burns what is the relationship between baseball and America, he did a series on it”.  In any case it isn’t any crazier than most of the ‘documentaries’ one encounters these days on Hulu or Netflix.

Some things are bigger than any of us; some things are bigger than all of us.  There are patterns we must follow. 

(2) See  for discussions on the influence of baseball, and the Cubs.

(3). “Why Not the Best” was the title of the campaign biography of Jimmy Carter published in 1976.  

Nov 29, 2016

November 29, 2016: Failed our Institutions, Circling the Bowl, Trumped the American Dream

Many people are now saying that our institutions, our political system, our media, our schools, have failed us.  I disagree.  I think that we have failed our institutions.  It was the “Boomers” who have made a pig’s breakfast of governance, who have set the tone.  It is we the people, led the “Generation of Swine”, that has opened the nominating process and then failed to show up to vote leaving the field to the knuckle-dragging ideologues be they Neo-Cons, Neo-Liberals, or the unwashed Teabaggers to seize control.  It was we the people, led by the “Generation of Swine”, who have stopped READING—newspapers, books, magazines—in favor of catching the latest meme now swirling through the “Internets” like so many turds circling the bowl.  It was we the people, led by the “Generation of Swine”, who have failed our educational institutions first by defunding them in favor of vouchers in order to finance the equivalent of the “American Madrasa” in the form of parochial and “on-line” education and thereby electing ourselves out of a well-rounded education.  It was we the people, led by the “Generation of Swine” who have been about the business of transforming our universities into glorified voc-ed centers thereby sacrificing the well-rounded citizen in the singular pursuit of money.  It is we the people, led by the “Generation of Swine”, that have failed our political system by supporting candidates who universally denigrate the very institutions they seek to join.  It is we the people, led by the “Generation of Swine, who have compounded the error by imposing term limits on public service thereby sacrificing experience to the lobbyists and the special interests they represent, and by imposing limits on the ability government to tax.  It is we the people, led by the “Generation of Swine” that having made an ethic of the individual we now compound the error by genuflecting before the altar of ignorant innocence. 

Our institutions are what we make of them and our ancestors bequeathed to us solid institutions that by and large performed the task of providing the greatest good for the greatest number.  Yes, there always has been and continues to be need for improvement, and the history of this country has been a history of struggle to achieve the ideal enshrined in our constitution to “create a more perfect union” in part by “providing for the general welfare”. 

But this generation, the “Generation of Swine”, have gone about the business of vandalizing our institutions by making continual war upon governance.  The mendacity of the swine has now Trumped the American Dream.  We are about to pay a heavy price and we have no one to blame but ourselves. 



Oct 8, 2016

October 8, 2016: Time It Was, Preserve Your Memory, All That’s Left Me

Katherine Camfield  b. December 11, 1959  d. October 8, 2015

“Time it was
And what a time it was, it was
A time of innocence
A time of confidences

Long ago it must be
I have a photograph
Preserve your memories
They’re all that’s left you.”

                        “Bookends” –Paul Simon

Oct 2, 2016

October 2, 2016: Chasing Rabbits, Logic and Proportion, Fallen Sloppy Dead

One lie makes you larger
And one lie makes you small.
And the ones that mother tells you
Don’t do anything at all.
Go ask ‘The Donald’
When he’s ten feet tall

“And if you go chasing rabbits
And you know you’re going to fall
Tell ‘em a hookah-smoking caterpillar
Has given you the call
Call ‘The Donald’
When he was just as small

“When the men on the chessboard
Get up and tell you where to go
And you’ve just had some kind of mushroom
And your mind is moving low
Go ask ‘The Donald’
I think he’ll know

“When logic and proportion
Have fallen sloppy dead
And the White Knight is talking backwards
And the Red Queen’s off with her head
Remember what the dormouse said
Feed your head
Feed your head” (1)  

Clearly, we are now staring into the “Looking Glass” where logic and proportion have fallen sloppy dead. It is not enough that “The Donald” stands four square against the scientific community on the issue of climate change, or that he has held—until recently—to various conspiracy theories, or that he is in deep denial concerning the condition of the economy.  It is not enough that his campaign has consisted of offering the country nothing but a series of insults directed at women and just about every group in America save for white men while advocating nothing of substance by way of policy proposals or strategies for effective governance.  It is not enough that he has undermined confidence among our allies by questioning the efficacy and need for our alliances, or for the nuclear umbrella.  It is not enough that this is not only the most vacuous candidacy for the presidency in memory but has in the bargain coarsened political discourse to levels not seen in well over a century.   Now instead of debating the woman who is the Democratic nominee for President of the United States, “The Donald”, like offal circling the soil pipe, could not control himself and went down the proverbial “Rabbit Hole”.  At three in the morning, always insisting on the last word, he is found twitting insults at the former Miss Universe.  As he should have learned from Sarah Palin, only an idiot twits and only a birdbrain tweets.
(1). A parody of the song “White Rabbit” by Jefferson Airplane.

Sep 30, 2016

September 30, 2016: ‘The Donald’ at the Bat, The ‘Babe Ruth’ Of Debating, Madame Secretary I Presume.

“But McCain preceded the Donald, as did also our man Mitt,
And the former was a hoodoo, while the later was a twit;
So upon that stricken multitude grim melancholy sat,
For there seemed but little chance of ‘The Donald’ getting to the bat.

But McCain let drive a single, to the wonderment of all,
And Mitt, the much despised, tore the cover off the ball;
And when the dust had lifted, and men saw what had occurred,
There was Romney safe at second and Johnny a-hugging third.

From five thousand throats and more there rose a lusty yell;
It rumbled through the valley, it rattled in the dell;
it pounded on the mountain and recoiled upon the flat,
for 'The Donald', 'The Mighty Donald', was advancing to the bat"
On Sunday, 25 September, the outlook was beginning to look very grim indeed for the Democratic nine.  According to Nate Silver, the most trusted name in polling and electoral predictions, the Donald had narrowed Clinton’s lead to the point that he now had a 45.2% chance of winning the election, the best numbers his campaign had been able to post since just before the party conventions.  Moreover, he was closing fast.  Emails were being sent out by various progressive and Democratic (not the same thing) organizations in full panic mode.  Florida was going Rescumlican, Ohio is lost, what’s next: Pennsylvania? Michigan?

Word came from the Trump campaign that the Donald, being the ‘Babe Ruth of debating’, would summarily dispatch the woman, citing how he had easily dominated the primary debates.  Accordingly, it was thought, Clinton having to walk the high wire between being forceful and being a scold, would be hamstrung, defensive, seen as aloof, condescending, judgmental, a nerd and a bore cast in the lot with Mike Dukkakis and Al Gore.  Indeed one wag postulated that the challenge for Hillary was to square quantum physics with the theory of relativity while the Donald simply had to show up and not vomit all over the stage.  Apparently, the Donald believed it as well, swallowing whole his own press releases as he pranced about the country telling adoring audiences that Clinton didn’t have a chance. 

“There was ease in ’The Donald’s’ manner as he stepped into his place;
There was pride in ‘The Donald’s’ bearing and a smile lit the ‘The Donald’s’ face.
And when, responding to the cheers, he lightly doffed his hat,
No stranger in the crowd could doubt ‘The Babe Ruth of Debating’ ‘twas at the bat.

Two hundred million eyes were upon him as he rubbed his hands with dirt;
Ten million tongues applauded when he wiped them on his shirt;
Then while the smiling Hillary ground the ball into her hip,
Defiance flashed in the ‘The Donald’s’ eye, a sneer curled the ’The Donald’s’ lip.”

Smiling, she led off by questioning his business acumen given his half dozen or more bankruptcies, chided him for stiffing contractors and employees that worked for him, suggested that the reason he isn’t releasing his tax returns is that perhaps he isn’t as wealthy or charitable as he claims, and that perhaps he owes money to foreign banks and governments creating huge conflicts of interest. 

“And now the leather-covered sphere came hurtling through the air,
And ‘The Donald’ stood a-watching it in haughty grandeur there.
Close by the sturdy batsman the ball unheeded sped-
“That ain’t my style,” said ‘The Donald’, “Strike One!” the moderator said.

“From back-benches, filled with teabags, came up a muffled roar,
Like the beating of the storm-waves upon a stern and distant shore;
“Kill him, Kill the umpire!” shouted someone in the stands;
And it’s likely they’d have killed him had not ‘The Donald’ raised his hand.”

“Madame Secretary, May I call you Secretary?” he then asked condescendingly, at which time he pivoted to a rambling critique of her performance as Secretary of State.  Clinton, composed as an old schoolmarm dealing with a recalcitrant delinquent, simply rattled off her experience questioning in the end ‘The Donald’s” knowledge of the world about us, and his fitness for command.

“With a sneer of heathen charity the great “Donald’s” visage shone;
He stilled the rising tumult; he bade the game go on;
He signaled to the lady, and once more the dun sphere flew;
But ‘The Donald’ still ignored it and the moderator called “strike two”.

“Fraud!” cried the maddened teabaggers, and echo answered “Fraud!”
But one scornful look from ‘The Donald” and the great unwashed were awed.
They saw his face grow stern and cold, they saw his muscles strain,
And they knew that ‘The Donald’ wouldn’t let that ball go by again.”

And then, turning and facing him, Hillary reminded ‘The Donald’ of his treatment and remarks to a former Miss Universe when he owned and ran the pageant widening the criticism by reminding the audience of his disparaging remarks about women and, in particular, his treatment of comedian Rosie O’Donnell. 

“The sneer is gone from ‘The Donald’s” lip, his teeth are clenched in hate,
He pounds with cruel violence his bat upon the plate;
An now the lady holds the ball, and now she lets it go,
And now the air is shattered by the force of ‘The Donald’s’ blow”

“Well, she deserved it” replied “The Donald” in a tone of righteous indignation. 

Strike three.

“Oh, somewhere in this promised land the sun is shining bright,
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light;
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout,
But there is no joy in Mudville—‘The Donald’ has struck out.” (1)

(1). My thanks to Ernest Lawrence Thayer for one of the favorite poems of my youth and the inspiration it has given me here.

Aug 9, 2016

August 9, 2016: That Little Girl, Dreams are Torn, Youth and Innocence.

“I met her on the strip three years ago
In a Camaro with this dude from L.A.
I blew that Camero off my back
And drove that little girl away.
But now there’s wrinkles around my baby’s eyes
And she cries herself to sleep at night
When I come home the house is dark
She  sighs, ‘baby did you make it all right’
She sits on the porch of her daddy’s house
But all her pretty dreams are torn
She stares off alone into the night
With the eyes of one who hates for just being born.
For all the shut down strangers and hot rod angels
Rumbling through this promised land
Tonight my baby and me, we’re gonna ride to the sea
And wash these sins off our hands.

Tonight, tonight, the highway’s bright
Out of our way mister you best keep
‘cause summer’s here and the time is right
For racing in the street.”  

                                     ---“Racing in the Street” Bruce Springsteen.

Today is an anniversary of sorts.  Today is my grandson’s birthday.  Happy birthday son. Today also marks the 17th anniversary of my first meeting Katie in Indianapolis, Indiana..It seems like so long ago, and yet like almost yesterday.  Today, for what it is worth, also marks the 42nd anniversary of the resignation of Richard Nixon. 

While here I pine for love’s labor lost, the nation pines for Nixon.  Only my grandson, insulated by youth and innocence, remains unscathed.  


Springsteen, Bruce.  "Racing in the Street" from the album "Darkness at the Edge of Town"
1978 Columbia Records. 

Jul 25, 2016

July 1, 2016: The Flower of England, Military Mind, Veritable Monument.

“Young men, soldiers, Nineteen Fourteen
Marching through countries, they’d never seen
Virgins with rifles, a game of charades
All for a Children’s Crusade” (1)

On this date, at the break of dawn precisely one hundred years ago, they went over the top in what became known as the Battle of the Somme. (2)  It was the bloodiest day in the history of the British army.  As the sun rose, the whistles blew and the men went, in the parlance of the time, “Over the Top”.  By sundown, the British had lost 57,470 men, an estimated 20,000 dead, mostly by noon that day.  It was a killing field.  The army advanced at a cost of 3 men for every foot of ground gained. 
It is remembered today largely as the leitmotif of a struggle characterized by what historian Max Hastings has termed the “Blackadder” interpretation of the First World War, after the British Sitcom of that name, which pilloried the struggle, especially the military leadership that led it.  Hastings takes umbrage with the critics, among them Siegfried Sassoon, claiming that they didn’t understand either its necessity nor its tactics. I must take issue with Hastings on both counts.

I don’t think that either Atkinson (“Blackadder”) or Sassoon the poet were critics of the struggle.  I don’t think either one of them, or many of the host of other critics of General Haig and the military chiefs, hold the view that the battle was unnecessary.  Where they take issue is with the strategy and the tactics used, and the continued order of repeated attacks for the next 141 days until the battle subsided due to the onset of winter having achieved not even the first day’s military objectives.  When it ended both sides suffered casualties each estimated at over half million men.

“The Children of England would never be slaves
They’re trapped on the wire and dying in waves
The flower of England face down in the mud
And stained in the blood of a whole generation.” (3)

The battle occurred because the French were being decimated at Verdun and to alleviate the pressure and to save the French army, the British were called upon to begin a major offensive.  Its necessity is, therefore, not in dispute.  What is in dispute are the tactics.  

I’ve made the point in previous posts concerning this conflict that I hold the military brass responsible because they had learned nothing from studying war.  One questions the purpose of military academies where lessons from previous conflicts seemingly are at best forgotten and at worst ignored.  All the European powers had observers on both sides during the American Civil War, a war that introduced the devastation of the modern rifle as well as the stalemate of trench warfare.  Nothing had improved since then, the introduction of the Gatling gun, followed in turn by the machine gun, could not auger well for any military offensive.  Nevertheless the military mind, being what it is, refused to come to terms with the evolving technology.  Indeed the French military approached the conflict with a training manual that insisted that the army would do nothing but attack.  Such tactics, given the technology at the time, were breathtakingly uninspired.

Corpulent generals safe behind lines
History’s lesson drowned in red wine
Poppies for young men, death’s bitter trade
All for a Children’s Crusade” (4)

The bombardment started a week or so before they went over the top.  The British fired an estimated 3 million shells at the German lines but, due to lack of quality control, a third of them were duds.  The purpose was, of course to destroy the enemy’s earthworks; but also to cut the barbed wire to ease the advance.  Ignoring front-line reconnaissance reports back to headquarters that the barbed wire was still in tact; and arming the men with wire cutters that couldn’t cut the much thicker German barbed wire, the men were led ‘over the top’.

The artillery were largely anti-personnel shells (similar to Civil War era grape shot) and, therefore, useless at destroying either trenches or wire, and the enemy was dug in with bunkers 30 to 40 feet underground. The British Infantry, loaded with up to 60 pounds of kit and told to walk across ‘no man’s land’ because the enemy will have been destroyed, went up—‘over the top’ into a perfect killing field.   

Like Viet Nam decades later, a conflict in which American forces would be brought to the battlefield by helicopter and the enemy simply counting the rotors and quickly determining if he would stand and fight or blend back into the jungle, so the Allies would announce the advance by the cessation of the artillery barrage.  A quick silence followed by the blowing of whistles signaling the men to climb out of their trenches and advance on no-man’s land—but also signaling to the enemy to come out of his bunkers and take up position, a strategy that effectively eliminated any purpose or advantage the bombardment was supposed to produce.  With the element of surprise gone, with the relative strength of each army generally understood, it was left to the infantry to slog it out in what quickly became a hell on earth. 

All of this was foreseeable.  As in the American Civil War, one had only to look to Fredericksburg or Antietam for lessons on what not to do at Gettysburg or Kennesaw Mountain; one had look no further than what was going on at Verdun to draw similar simple conclusions.  However, no, the military mind has trouble with universally observable empiricism.

The historian struggles to justify.  Many point to the Battle of the Somme as the first use of tanks and the use of aircraft as offensive weapons in an effort to demonstrate the military’s willingness to embrace new technologies and strategies but, unfortunately, these apologies are not supported by the historical record.  The fact is that tanks, here introduced to warfare, were not the brainchild of the Army’s brass.  Instead, the modern tank is the brainchild of one Winston Churchill who, in a rare moment of prescience and wisdom, insisted as Lord of the Admiralty, to build the tank.  It was the British Navy not the army that developed the modern tank; the army having been presented with the idea quickly dismissed tanks, deriding them as ‘land yachts”.  While taking part in the battle, tanks were, nevertheless ineffective both because they were not present in large enough numbers and because the Army hadn’t developed the tactics for their use.    Indeed the same criticism has been leveled at Haig and the brass concerning the use of flamethrowers, mortars, and other weapons that civilian authorities were to impose upon the military command in an effort to break the stalemate.   Indeed, it was the Canadians, later in the war that introduced the ‘rolling’ artillery”, a strategy of using it during the assault and calibrating their fire to lay down a barrage just ahead of the advancing troops. This to prevent the enemy from taking position—a strategy that more than any other would finally break the stalemate near the end of the war. 

Hastings, unlike Sassoon, did not fight this battle, nor any other in this war.  He is the grandson of one who did, but he wasn’t there.  Sassoon was and, on balance, I’ll take his version of it.

Let us take a moment and pay our respects to the ones who fought and died there, to the ones who fought and were wounded and dismembered in body and soul, to the ones who carried the memories well into my lifetime for while it surely wasn’t in vain it was, however, altogether too great a sacrifice.  The battle remains, however, a veritable monument to the stupidity of leadership and the madness of man.

“Pawns in the game are not victims of chance
Strewn on the fields of Belgium and France
Poppies for young men, death’s bitter trade
All of those young lives betrayed” (5)


(3)   Op. cit.
(4)   Ibid.
(5)   Ibid.

Jun 12, 2016

June 7, 2016: Requeim For A Heavyweight, The Butterfly and the Bee, Not Again See His Likeness

“The hands can’t hit what the eyes can’t see
I float like a butterfly and sting like a bee”
         ----Muhammad Ali,  Heavyweight Champion of the World.

In the film version of a teleplay written by Rod Serling, Antony Quinn portrays “a once-promising but now washed-up boxer who faces the end of his career after he is savagely defeated” (1) in the opening scene by an up-and-coming younger man.  The film is remarkable not only for the command performance of Antony Quinn as the aging pugilist, but also for the dramatic performances of both Jackie Gleason and Mickey Rooney as supporting actors.  However, it is, perhaps, most memorable in that the opening scene in which Quinn faces the immanent end of his career finds him receiving a savage beating by none other than a young Cassius Clay.  The drama unfolding in the opening moments of the film would later be repeated in real life when the young Clay would confront two years later a much older Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship of the world. 

The story goes that Clay, at the tender age of 12, had gone to a police station in his hometown of Louisville, Kentucky to report his bicycle stolen.  Telling the officer that he wanted to whup whoever was responsible the policeman suggested he take up boxing.  The rest, as they say, is history.  For the next decade, Clay would hone his skills.

“Clay made his amateur boxing debut in 1954.[32] He won six Kentucky Golden Gloves titles, two national Golden Gloves titles, an Amateur Athletic Union national title, and the Light Heavyweight gold medal in the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome.[33] Clay's amateur record was 100 wins with five losses. (2)” 

By early 1964, young Cassius would find himself in Miami Florida confronting Sonny Liston for the heavyweight championship of the world.

It proved to be a difficult journey, for unlike virtually every other sport; the boxer is not accountable to a team, nor a team’s management and ownership.  A boxer is, or at least can be, his ‘own man’, a point and a prospect not lost upon the emerging Clay.  Borrowing from the legendary wrestler “Gorgeous George” Wagner, young Cassius saw how useful ‘flamboyant self-promotion’ could be. 

“A 19-year-old Ali met a 46-year-old George at a Las Vegas radio station. During George's radio interview, the wrestler's promo caught the attention of the future heavyweight champion. If George lost to Classy Freddie Blassie, George exclaimed, "I'll crawl across the ring and cut my hair off! But that's not gonna happen because I'm the greatest wrestler in the world!" Ali, who later echoed that very promo when taunting opponent Sonny Liston, recalled, "I saw 15,000 people comin' to see this man get beat. And his talking did it. I said, 'This is a gooood idea!'" In the locker room afterward, the seasoned wrestler gave the future legend some invaluable advice: "A lot of people will pay to see someone shut your mouth. So keep on bragging, keep on sassing and always be outrageous."

Accordingly, the brash young pugilist from Louisville, dubbed the “Louisville Lip” by disparaging sportswriters, found it difficult to get a title match with the champion Liston.  Here was a man, and particularly a man of color, who could not be ‘controlled’. 

America had had such an experience in the early years of the last century when the sport produced its first Black Champion.  Jack Johnson (4) proved not only to be a formidable fighter but a clear threat to the white supremacist doctrines of racial superiority and the Jim-Crow segregation that it produced.  Accordingly, a long hunt for a ‘great white hope’ would be undertaken until Johnson, several years later, would finally be vanquished.  The legacy of Jack Johnson made it difficult for black athletes to break the color line and when they did one had to be, in the words of the time, “a credit to your race”. Men like Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson who would advance the cause of civil rights by crossing the color line and would make it possible for Larry Doby and a host of others in baseball, and Floyd Patterson, Sonny Liston and a host of others in boxing, to emerge and even become champions as long as they didn’t make any demands.  What America, it was held, did not want was an athlete who spoke his mind, especially if he were a black man.

Getting a title fight, under these conditions, proved problematic.  So Clay, to create pressure for such a match would take his counsel from “Gorgeous George” and turn spectacle into opportunity.  Appearing and confronting Liston at his training facilities, the young Clay would taunt the champion calling him a “big ugly bear” saying that he was “too ugly to be champion” and promising, after defeating him, to donate him to a zoo.  Finally, the champion relented and a fight was duly arranged. 

The results are, of course, well chronicled.  Clay quickly took control of the match easily outmaneuvering the champion.  In response it is held by many, including longtime boxing expert and commentator Burt Sugar, that Liston, as he allegedly had done several times before, had liniment put on his gloves in order to blind his opponent. For nearly two rounds, Clay dodged and avoided the champion as he struggled to clear his eyes, fighting nearly blind against one of the most powerful punchers in the history of the game.  Finally, his eyes cleared and when they did, the young Cassius went to work on the aging champion until Liston threw in the towel.  In what is regarded as one of the greatest upsets in the sport Cassius Clay became the youngest heavyweight champion in history. 

Within days, Clay announced to the world that he had not only converted to Islam but had changed his name to Muhammad Ali.

The search now began in earnest for the ever-elusive new “Great White Hope”.

I am not going to recount the history of his fights but instead I want to bring attention to Ali the Athlete and Ali the Icon.

Ali the Athlete

For those seeking a new “Great White Hope” be he white or black, someone who would, in effect, silence the “Louisville Lip”, the wait would prove to be long and, in the end, futile.  For here stood on the national stage not only the country’s most notorious braggart, but a man who would later be voted the greatest athlete of the twentieth century. 

He had taken from Sugar Ray Robinson the boxing strategy of a much smaller man, defense, movement, and glove speed and by training and sculpting his body brought these skills into the heavyweight arena.  Here was a man who stood six foot four inches and fought with the skills and speed never seen at this level. In his youth, he was always moving, always circling left, counter-clockwise, always the left jab, and the fast left jab that would mask the hard right hand coming behind it.   His hands were said by many to be the fastest ever seen.  In addition, there was power.  Critics claim that he didn’t have the punching power of a Liston or a Foreman or, for that matter, a Frazier, but they are wrong.  All one has to do is watch the films of his fights with Jerry Quarry or George Chuvalo, or Joe Frazier.  One can hear over the crowd the punches being thrown.  You don’t hear his opponent’s blows but you can hear Ali’s punches coming in as they land, such was the power behind those hands. 

He also had the ability to slip punches, often—unheard of in boxing—of leaning back with his chin just an inch or so out of range as he would fall back on his heals as his opponent attempted to land a blow.  In a photo taken of the first Liston match one sees the young fighter leaning back as Liston, arm and glove extended to the maximum falls inches short of Ali’s chin. Liston later claimed that he quit the fight because he had dislocated his shoulder failing to land the blows and hitting only air.  This tactic, often fatal to success because to employ it leaves one prey to a follow up blow or combination, Ali was nevertheless able to execute because of his superior abilities to move on his feet as well as counterpunch as he fell backwards; a skill that left many an opponent weary of closing in for the ‘kill’.  

Here was no muscle-bound Tyson but a finely sculpted and finely tuned athlete with an extraordinary set of skills as the photo of young Ali standing over the vanquished Liston in the re-match in Maine clearly demonstrates.  Delivering a knockout punch thrown with such speed and at such an unorthodox angle as to be nearly unseen, he stands over Liston, his sculpted body with muscles taut, taunting the former champion to get up and fight.  Here is classic Ali in his prime.

Moreover, in his prime he was something indeed to behold.  Fighting every 60 to 90 days he took the “show on the road”, fighting in England, and Germany, fighting the Canadian and the German as well as the European champions. With each battle, America hoped it had found its “hope”; with each battle, Ali prevailed.  

Then called Uncle Sam; he had mired himself in this little squabble called Viet Nam.

                        “Keep asking me,
                        No matter how long,
                        On the war in Vietnam
                        I sing this song:
                        I ain’t got no quarrel
                        With no Viet Cong.”

“Ain’t no Viet Cong ever called me nigger, or raped or killed my mother or father,” said the champion.  An unsettling truth blown back into the face of America.  Martin Luther King, himself struggling with the morality of our war in Southeast Asia and counseled against taking a stand lest so doing jeopardize the civil rights movement, would later in 1967 turn to Ali “the renegade lyrical poet from the ring, to justify his position: ‘Like Muhammad Ali puts it’”, said King, “’we are all—black, brown and poor—victims of the same system of oppression”’ (5)

Citing his defiance as a criminal act, the boxing commissions throughout the U.S. quickly stripped him of his title and revoked his boxing license making it impossible for the Champion to practice his trade despite sanctioning the likes of Liston and others who had criminal records as long as their arms.  For over three years, the Champ would struggle both financially and through the legal system in an effort to appeal his conviction, his fines and his pending prison term. 

It was during this time that the late-great sportscaster Howard Cosell would come to his aid, inviting the Champion to appear on his weekly television sports show and comment on both his legal struggles and on the boxing scene as the various boxing confederations held a series of  contests to decide who would be the next champion.  During this process and afterward when others—former Ali sparring partner Jimmy Ellis and later Joe Frazier would emerge as the duly anointed heavyweight champion—Cosell would have Ali appear with him to analyze their skills during which the show’s host would convey a strong suggestion that these men were mere imposters to the throne, that they weren’t real champions because the genuine article was sitting next to him in the studio. 

Cosell was the thinking man’s sportsman, bringing to everything he covered an analysis of the strategies employed and an evaluation of the relative level of execution.  He also was the first national spokesperson to recognize the legitimacy of Ali’s name change something that, for instance, it took the Los Angeles Times and other national media years to do.  In one particular program on ABC’s “Wide World of Sports”  Cosell, showing his audience how he wanted to demonstrate the intelligence that Ali brought into the ring had the Champion review video footage of the great fighters of the twentieth century.  “You say you are the Greatest”, intoned Cosell, “Tell the audience how you would defeat the likes of Jack Johnson, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano and several others”.  As the tapes were played Ali calmly explained how he would prepare for each of these men, their strengths and weaknesses, and how they could and would be beaten.

For over three years, during the prime of his physical skills, Ali was barred from the ring.  When he returned he was not the same fighter.  Gone were some of the speed, and the ability to consistently stay up on his toes and circle his opponent.  Other stratagems were in order.

The “Rumble in the Jungle”

His second career is memorable for the trilogy of fights with then heavyweight champion Joe Frazier and his single fight with then champion George Foreman.   He challenged Frazier losing the first bout in part, because it was only his third fight since returning to the ring and he clearly wasn’t prepared.  Nevertheless, the fight went the distance and Ali lost on points.  He fought Frazier a second time after Joe had lost the championship to George Foreman and won that fight on points, evening the score.  Both of these battles went the distance, both were bruising Battles.  This set the stage for the “Rumble in the Jungle” a battle with then heavyweight champion George Foreman in Zaire, now the Republic of the Congo.

Foreman was then considered one of the most intimidating and vicious punchers in the history of the game.  He won his crown by flooring the formidable Joe Frazier.  Many, even in Ali’s own entourage thought that Ali—several years older—and now much slower, would be injured, perhaps seriously if he took on Foreman.  Some even feared for his life. 

However, Ali, as always, assumed a posture of confidence.  Studying a film of Foreman’s fights Ali saw a weakness.  George had won almost all of his fights by knockout in the early rounds and he had not gone deep into a fight for a long time.  Watching the films, he noticed that as he flogged one of his opponents his arms appeared to get heavy.  He would tire and as he did his hands would come down.  From this, Ali devised a strategy—dubbed by the pugilist poet—“Rope-a-Dope” in which he would lie against the ropes and let the Champion flail away until he tired and then put him away.

Norman Mailer would describe what he saw at ringside and the genius of the tactic.  In the heat of Africa as Foreman would flail away, Ali would lie back against the ropes absorbing the heavy blows in his ribcage.  The entire ring would shake as the ropes and posts absorbed the blows.  Had Ali taken these blows standing in the center of the ring, Mailer noted, his skeleton would have had to absorb all that energy and it would have crushed him.  Nevertheless, noted the novelist, one noticed that much of the energy Foreman was expending was passing through Ali’s body and was taken up by the ropes and posts and passing down into the very floor of the ring itself. Ali had made the ring into one giant shock absorber.

It was a dangerous strategy for in order to succeed Ali not only had to absorb the punishment administered to his body by Foreman but he had to, at all costs, avoid a direct blow to the head for Foreman was allowed in at close range.

Ali would retreat from the center of the ring and lie against the ropes and motion for Foreman to come on and attack him.  In a “peek-a-boo” posture in which he would shield his face and head behind his gloves and ‘peeking’ through is upheld hands, Ali would taunt his foe.  “You hit like a woman, George” he would taunt, “is that all you got, George?” he would ask.  Enraged, Foreman would flail away as Ali’s trainer and manager Angelo Dundee would scream at his man to get off the ropes knowing how dangerous this was.

And, danger was ever present, at each moment, with each blow, as Ali would bob back and forth moving his head to avoid the headshots.  Watching film of the fight you can see the peril as Foreman’s forearms, particularly the right one pass by Ali’s moving head all the way to the elbow.  A direct hit under such circumstances could be devastating, even fatal. 

Finally, as Ali had foreseen, Foreman began to tire, he began to flag, his arms began to drop and Ali saw his opportunity quickly coming off the ropes and delivering several blows in rapid succession dropping the champion to the floor.  It was over.  An elated Ali then went to the edge of the ring where the press had set up shop and shouted down at the assembled “I told you I am the Greatest”.

Foreman would later say of the fight that as Ali taunted him, yelling “is that all you got, George?” he began to realize that yes this is all I have and his confidence began to ebb away.  Ali would attack not only your body but also your mind.  It would take George Foreman years to recover, eventually reclaiming his crown in his 40’s and becoming the oldest man to win the heavyweight championship.

The “Thrilla in Manila”

This set the stage for the final bout with Ali’s arch nemesis Joe Frazier; once again, for the heavyweight championship of the world only this time the roles were reversed.  Ali was now the champion and Frazier the challenger. 

The final bout, the last in his trilogy with “Smokin Joe Frazier” as he was known, proved to be a bruising battle, after which both fighters were never the same.  The pre-fight build up to the “Thrilla in Manila”, as ever the poet Ali described it, was as bruising for Frazier as the fight itself.  Always, as with every opponent, Ali would cast his adversary as the great white hope, only this time adding insult to injury by dubbing Frazier the “Gorilla” and appearing on camera with a stuffed toy gorilla saying:

            “I’ll be a-punchin’ and a-pokin’
            Pouring water on your smokin'”

After a bit of clowning, Ali quickly took control of the fight in the early rounds, much as he had against Liston years earlier.  However, the middle rounds belonged to Frazier as the two giants of the sport battled in the heat of the tropics.

Ali later said that as the fight wore on it was the closest he would ever come to death itself.  It is not generally understood but an athlete can expend an awful lot under such circumstances.  A major league pitcher can lose five to ten pounds during a game a prizefighter can expend much more than that. In fact, under severe circumstances such as these a fighter can lose so much by way of sweating out electrolytes and other substances as to risk internal organ failure. 
Nevertheless, the two fought it out.  In the middle of the thirteenth round, as Ali is now in the center of the ring, winning by most accounts on points but narrowly, he circles Frazier.  Always moving left, his back to the camera, Frazier’s face directly in front suddenly Ali delivers a hard right to Frazier’s jaw.  It happens so fast that the ringside announcer’s don’t notice it until after the round is over and one of them comments that Frazier has lost his mouthpiece, that piece of plastic that fighters put in their mouth to protect their teeth and jaw.  If you watch closely, you can see the blow land flush on Frazier’s jaw, as the white piece of plastic is jettisoned.  So hard is Frazier hit that the mouthpiece doesn’t fall out unto the floor but rather sails out of his mouth parallel to the floor with such force that it lands nine rows back into the crowd.  And Frazier simply looks back at Ali, and doesn’t go down.   The round winds down, and both fighters collapse in their respective corners.  When the bell is about to be sounded to begin round fourteen, Frazier’s manager throws in the towel.  The fight is over; Ali is declared the winner by technical knockout.  Frazier sits crushed on his stool, Ali collapses on the floor.  Later that evening Frazier would be taken back to his lodgings to begin a long recuperation; Ali would be taken to the hospital. 

Neither would ever be the same.  Ali would later lose then regain his crown for an unprecedented third time against Leon Spinks but in Manila, he left his best in the ring. 

He was an anomaly in his sport.  A heavyweight who fought with the speed and grace of a middleweight; a fighter that could counterpunch while back on his heels and deliver telling punches while backpedaling; a boxer who talked while fighting, always dangerous since one risks, by so doing, a broken jaw, (as when Ken Norton caught Ali with a right hand while he was mid sentence breaking his jaw in the second round.  Ali finished the fight.); a poetic pugilist who spoke his mind.

Ali the Icon

Many today that were not yet born when Ali emerged upon the national consciousness do not understand that as was the case with Martin Luther King, Muhammad Ali was greeted with near universal derision. 

“Almost from the beginning of his career, when he was still called Cassius Clay, his rhymed couplets, like his punches, were brutal and blunt.  And his poems, like his opponents, suffered a beating.  When in the history of boxing [asks Henry Louise Gates] have critics been so irked by a fighter’s use of language?  A.J. Liebling called him “Mr. Swellhead Bigmouth Poet,” while John Ahern, writing in the Boston Globe in 1964, mocked his “Vaudeville” verse as “homespun doggerel.”  Time magazine, in a particularly nasty triple dig in 1967 over Ali’s opposition to the Vietnam War, his embrace of Islam and name change, called him “Gaseous Cassius”.  (6)

What irritated the press was that it was always Ali who stamped his own imprimatur on the event.  Describing a blow he would deliver to Liston in a pre-fight build up he would quip:

                        “Now Liston disappears from view
                        The crowd is getting frantic.
                        But our radar stations have picked him up
                        He’s somewhere over the Atlantic.” 

Ever the showman, it was Ali, never the press that defined the event and, in the end, that defined Ali. 

Nevertheless, he was more, much more than mere sport and spectacle, mere showmanship.  Ali fused sport, spectacle, and showmanship into cause and purpose and meaning.  Clowning before the camera he would appear on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight” show or with Howard Cosell and would stop mid sentence and ask “Ain’t I pretty?” and motion for the camera, Gorgeous George style, to zoom in for a close up.  “Prettiest face in the human race” he would tell his audience.  Often, and almost universally in the early days, the audience response would be one of nervous laughter at his braggadocio. Partly because the audience was unaccustomed to such talk; partly because when he said he was “the greatest” or that he had “the prettiest face in the human race”, the audience sensed that perhaps it was true.

Out of this came black pride.  Blacks stopped referring to themselves as Negroes, stopped using hair straightener and stopped bleaching their skin.  “Black is beautiful” was born and a new sense of ethnic pride, a result of the emergent civil rights movement and more than spurred on by the image of Ali.  For in his form one sees not simply a black man, but the facial features of an Asian, an African, a Latino, perhaps Caucasian as well.  One sees in the features a certain femininity, especially in the young Ali, as well as a strong masculine form.  If one were to condense the best features of the human species down into one person it would be Ali in his prime. 

And so Ali not only gave doggerel poetic meaning and gave grace and beauty to an ugly sport but in the process became a citizen of the world, an Icon, the most recognizable face on the planet. 

We will not again see his likeness.

(5). Gates, Henry Louis Jr. “Muhammad Ali, the Political Poet” New York Times op-ed June 9,
            2016. page A-21
(6). Ibid