Back in 2005, when George W. Bush was president, I was covering a Memorial Day ceremony in Washington for the American Forces Press Service. Bush was the featured speaker; and I noticed that the young man sitting next to me studiously refused to clap or applaud when the president spoke.
I struck up a conversation with the young man and we had a good rapport. So when the ceremony was over, I asked my new friend why he didn’t clap or applaud. “Because I despise Bush,” he told me.
“That’s fine,” I replied. “Every American has the right to oppose — or support — the president.” However, I added, “when you applaud the president at a Memorial Day ceremony, you’re not applauding the man per se; you’re applauding the office and the institution of the presidency.
“You’re honoring the men and women whose sacrifice protects the very liberty you now embrace. A Memorial Day ceremony, after all, is a unifying civic event, not a partisan political event.”
The young man’s girlfriend quickly agreed. “That’s what I told him, but he doesn’t understand!” she exclaimed. The girlfriend apologized and told me she was embarrassed by her boyfriend’s rudeness.
The young man protested. “I understand what you’re saying,” he said, “but this is the best way to protest a president who I think has been awful. I’m not heckling him or shouting him down. I’m just sitting here politely and refusing to clap or applaud.”
I mention all this because a similar incident took place yesterday, when three members of the 1972 Super Bowl Champion Miami Dolphins studiously refused to attend a White House ceremony honoring their team.
The ’72 Dolphins, of course, are notable because they are the only undefeated Super Bowl champion. (The 2007 New England Patriots were undefeated in the regular seasons and throughout the playoffs, but lost the Super Bowl to the New York Giants.)
Traditionally, every Super Bowl winner is invited to the White House to be honored by the president in a completely non-partisan and light-hearted civic event. Yet, for reasons that have never been explained, President Nixon failed to invite the ’72 Dolphins to the White House.
Over at the Weekly Standard, Geoffrey Norman speculates that this was because the Dolphins beat Nixon’s favorite team, the George Allen-led Washington Redskins in Super Bowl VII.
“Nixon was too busy calling plays,” joked Dolphins running back Mercury Morris. (Legend has it that, in a 1971 playoff game, Allen ran a play recommended by his friend, Richard Nixon. The two men had known each other for decades, ever since Nixon was a California congressman and Allen was coaching at California’s Whittier College.)
In any case, for whatever reason, Nixon snubbed the ’72 Dolphins. And now, 40 years later, President Obama was rectifying this historic wrong by inviting the team to the White House.
It’s been a long time coming, but we’re finally getting there,” said Hall of Fame linebacker Nick Buoniconti.
“It’s the right thing to do for the White House,” said quarterback Bob Griese. “We’re the only team that went undefeated. It’s an honor for us to go. It’s long overdue.”
Yet, according to the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, three of the team’s players, veritable stars all — guard Bob Kuechenberg, center Jim Langer, and defensive tackle Manny Fernandez — refused to attend the event, citing political differences with the White House.
“We’ve got some real moral compass issues in Washington. I don’t want to be in a room with those people and pretend I’m having a good time. I can’t do that,” said Langer.
“I want to be careful, because mom said if you have nothing good to say about someone, then don’t say anything. I don’t have anything good to say about someone,” said Bob Kuechenberg.
“It would be hypocritical of me to be there,” he added. “I don’t want to do that. I just don’t believe in this administration at all. So I don’t belong.”
“I’ll just say my views are diametrically opposed to the president’s,” said Fernandez. “I hope everyone enjoys the trip who goes.”
Now, I stand second to no one in my opposition to President Obama. He has been a disastrous president, whose policies will haunt this nation for decades. Worse yet, he has provided absolutely no leadership on the crucial issues that now confront out nation. He’s been asleep at the switch, infatuated with his own ideological fixations, such as government-run healthcare and American withdrawal from the world.
But there is a time for political battle and there is a time to forgo political battle. And I’m sorry, but a White House event to honor the only undefeated Super Bowl champion is not a time for political battle. It is not a time to try and score political points, or to make a political statement.
Instead, it is a time to transcend politics. It is a time to partake in a shared civic ceremony that honors athletic excellence unbounded by any political commitment or ideology.
Make no mistake: I deeply share and respect the political disagreements that Messrs. Langer, Kuechenberg, and Fernandez have with President Obama. But with all due respect, they were wrong not to have attended the White House ceremony honoring them and their team. And they disgraced themselves and the ’72 Dolphins by snubbing President Obama.
You don’t honor the man, but you do honor the office and the institution, and everything that it represents: “…one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” And that’s true whether the man occupying the office is George W. Bush or Barack Hussein Obama. Regardless, we are all Americans first.