WASHINGTON – It was right around the time that the CNN reporter was doing her standup at the front of the White House briefing room Tuesday afternoon, synopsizing for who-knows-how-many viewers the very grave and very serious standoff between President Trump and the Eagles, that the absurdity of the entire affair began to sink in. The room, by general consensus, was more crowded than usual, and both the temperature and humidity were rising, and in the back, two political reporters had this exchange:
“Is this all about the national anthem thing?”
“Probably a lot of people came for it, and now they’re slumming.”
What we came for, of course, was The White House Visit That Wasn’t. The Eagles – a few of them, anyway – were supposed to be there. Then Trump rescinded the invitation and announced that the White House would hold a “celebration of America” instead, complete with the United States Marine Band and the United States Army Chorus and the understanding that what was once a lighthearted photo op for any team fortunate enough to win a Super Bowl had become another display of excessive politics and tribalism.
The story had been evolving throughout the morning. Once multiple media outlets reported that the Eagles had planned to send a small contingent Tuesday – just four to 10 individuals, including Swoop, the team’s mascot – the White House released a statement accusing the Eagles of “abandoning their fans,” which was a particularly silly charge. For one thing, 25,000-30,000 of those fans had just shown up at Citizens Bank Park on Friday night to watch some Eagles players participate in a charity softball game. Talk about loyalty. For another thing, have you ever tried to abandon an Eagles fan? It can’t be done. They tweet at you. They chase you down in parking lots. They find you in a coffee shop, plop down across from you, and assume you have nothing better to do than discuss Nate Sudfeld’s arm talent for 20 minutes. They’re relentless.
As it turned out, there weren’t many of them on the South Lawn, either. Many of the people on the lawn were men in their 20s and 30s, and they wore navy blue suits and ties, or navy blue blazers and khakis, and most of them had short haircuts and appeared to have just showered, and all of them held American flags. I’ve seen Eagles fans. Generally, they don’t look like that. “We’re all staffers,” one of them said. Jenna Webster, a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who is interning at the Republican National Committee, said that she had received a mass email from the White House earlier in the day, inviting her to attend the event. She was not visibly bothered that the Eagles had abandoned her.
Trump finally appeared on the South Lawn at 2:57 p.m., and upon his entrance, a public-address announcer said, “Ladies and gentlemen, please join us in singing our country’s national anthem.” As the band played and the crowd sang, I was still scribbling in my reporter’s notebook, getting down the announcer’s words and the scene, and I made certain to grip my pen tightly, for fear that if I dropped it to the grass and had to kneel to pick it up, the Secret Service might train their guns on me. After all, throughout the 2017 regular season, not a single Eagles player had taken a knee during the national anthem, but that didn’t stop Trump from using them as a convenient cudgel in this particular culture-war skirmish.
“I want to take this opportunity to explain why young Americans stand for our national anthem,” he said Tuesday, bypassing the opportunity to explain that what gives patriotism, or any virtue, its true worth is its voluntary nature. “Maybe it’s about time we understood. We stand to honor our military and to honor our country. …
“American is a great nation, a community, a family, and America is our home, and we love our home. And our country has never done better than it’s doing right now – never. … We’ve created $7 trillion of value in our country since the election. We’re the largest economy in the world and getting a lot larger, and fast. It’s happened very quickly – actually, quicker than I even thought.”
Trump intended those remarks as a refutation of the concerns and complaints of those most-outspoken members of the 2017 Eagles: Malcolm Jenkins, Chris Long, Torrey Smith, others. They’re pro athletes who make millions of dollars! Things are great! They should pipe down! They should be grateful! But the funny part is, it was the president of the United States who defined our country’s present condition purely in terms of money and wealth, and it has been the Eagles’ supposedly selfish and entitled pro athletes who have been raising money for autism research and a sports complex for Haitian children, lobbying lawmakers, and donating a year’s salary to various charities. If that’s selfishness, it’s a pretty odd form of it.
The ceremony, such as it was, didn’t last more than a half hour. The Eagles were not missed much, and they did not miss much, which is fine. They did the right thing by sending out that milquetoast quote from owner Jeffrey Lurie and not commenting further, by declining to have Trump bait them into a longer war of words, by ignoring the whole thing, because the whole thing was relatively harmless. Was it a few minutes of propaganda? Absolutely. Should we do away with White House visits for championship teams, no matter who’s president? Sure. But if the Eagles can move on from Trump’s snub, maybe everyone else can, too.
Besides, at this point, I’m just glad that he didn’t do it on Twitter, from a burner account.