In the final month of the 1992 campaign, President George H.W. Bush made an issue of Gov. Bill Clinton’s foreign travel when Clinton was a student in the late 1960s. Bush chided Clinton for not providing more detail about five days he’d spent in Moscow during a 40-day tour of European capitals. Worse, the president took issue with Clinton’s having demonstrated against the Vietnam War while he was a student pursing a Rhodes scholarship at Oxford.
“I’m just concerned about it,” he told Larry King on CNN. “I’ll tell you what concerns me, and I really feel viscerally about this: demonstrating against your own country in a foreign land. I have demonstrators in front of the White House every single day. Look there right now — there are probably some sitting out there, and that’s fine.”
He went on: “In the war when I was trying to mobilize world opinion and United States’ opinion, we had a lot of people marching and demonstrating in front of the White House — ministers and guys that opposed the war. And I understand that. But I cannot for the life of me understand mobilizing demonstrations and demonstrating against your own country, no matter how strongly you feel, when you are in a foreign land.”
I thought Bush was right in 1992, and I think his time and place standard, much like that which I heard from my parents growing up, still applies.
This is why Bush vs. Clinton was the first thing I thought of last weekend when watching professional football players taking a knee in response to President Trump’s criticizing those who’d previously done so during the national anthem as SOBs. Due to the time difference, the first game played last Sunday was overseas, outside of London, where 80,000 fans watched the Jacksonville Jaguars against the Baltimore Ravens.
According to the Guardian, 27 players and staff of the Jaguars and Ravens took a knee during the anthem. Additionally, many players and coaches linked arms as they stood, including Jaguars owner Shahid Khan. But when the stadium was filled with the sound of “God Save the Queen,” the Americans were reverential.
I don’t know how President Bush, now age 93, applies his 1992 prism to the protests of 2017. He surely recognizes that players, coaches, and owners have a right to express themselves; there’s no constitutional issue here.
But there is a difference between protesting against your country on your native soil and doing so overseas.
There’s something unseemly about Americans taking our internal differences outside of our borders, especially where the act of taking a knee is no longer about racial injustice and police shootings of unarmed black men as intended by originator Colin Kaepernick. Now it’s a statement about President Trump, who, say what you will (and I often do), is still commander in chief.
The disrespect shown by these American athletes was only accentuated by the deference paid to the U.K. national anthem.
“Time, place, and surrounding circumstances make a difference,” agreed broadcast legend Bob Costas when we talked on Thursday. “I understand and appreciate the leaguewide response to the president’s comments, as well as the social-justice issues that inspired the original protests. But, even if unintentional, the optics in this case are problematic.”
Although each of these circumstances is unique, Costas recalls another protest in a foreign land — that of track stars Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico City. After winning the gold and bronze, respectively, for the 200-meter dash, both men stood on the medal podium with a raised fist in the air.
“I was 16 and watched it and was moved by it,” Costas told me of that moment. “Standing there for the anthem, it seemed to me that they were saying the United States must fully include black people. They were calling for our nation to empower black people and to treat them fairly, which echoed Martin Luther King Jr. asking the country to rise up and live out the meaning of its creed.”
Maybe today Bush 41 would be more open to American football players exercising their freedom even outside of London than he was to his 1992 campaign opponent. Or perhaps one of the youngest fighter pilots in WWII might take umbrage at what many vets see as disrespecting the flag.
The only thing about which I’m confident is that either way, he’d never have called them SOBs.