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  • Writer's pictureMarc Johnson

Rope a Dope

Ali, FDR and Barack

OK, I never thought I’d find a connection among the “greatest” heavyweight of all time, Franklin Roosevelt and the man now in the White House and officially certified as a resident of the United States, but bear with me.

Throughout his remarkable career Muhammad Ali struggled to be accepted for what he was – a consummate professional, a remarkably intelligent, one-of-a-kind man; an African-American with a gift for language who also challenged all kinds of conventional thinking.

Ali, a convert to the Muslim faith, was a man with a foreign name and remarkable championship skills; a man who made a principled stand against an awful war and paid dearly for it, a champion never accepted by many Americans as “legitimate.”  But, through it all, he could proudly claim to be “the greatest.”

It’s not bragging, they say, if you can do it and Ali could.

I watched the great champion in an old, black and white interview with Howard Cosell last night as he correctly analyzed himself as both loved and hated, misunderstood, undervalued, misrepresented and, well, just not one of us. He knows us better than we know him.

Elected to the presidency four times, father of Social Security, architect of victory in World War II, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was never considered legitimate by some of his persistent critics. The narrative of illegitimacy dogged him in each of his four elections to the presidency.

FDR was – take your pick – a “traitor to his class,” as historian H.W. Brands described him in his fine biography or more nefariously the architect of a vast Jewish conspiracy. As another Roosevelt historian has described the myth makers, they were convinced FDR was out “to betray the United States into the clutches of international conspirators who were plotting a world state under Jewish domination.” In other words, Franklin Roosevelt, the Dutch-American born of aristocratic parents of the Hudson River Valley was secretly a “Jew,” presiding over an administration dominated by an  “invisible Jewish leadership.” In other words – he was illegitimate.

And…the current president, a man besieged until yesterday by many who considered his very birth in the United States illegitimate. Obama, the editor of the Harvard Law Review (that is generally considered a pretty big deal), who a “carnival barker” reality television host can wonder how he ever got into the such an establishment Ivy League bastion.

To some Americans, Barack Obama can never be “legitimate,” just as the great boxer or the greatest president of the 20th Century can’t possibly be legitimate. Accomplishment is simply not enough.

Ali was a “draft dodger,” a “loud mouth” and not even a good boxer. Roosevelt was a Jew, a “cripple” and “mentally ill.” Obama must be a Muslim, and couldn’t have gotten into Harvard on his own. He’s just not a real American. He can’t be “one of us.”

Stay tuned. The production of the president’s birth certificate won’t silence some of the doubters. Even as Obama played rope a dope with the birthers, daffy Donald Trump still said he would need to check the veracity of the document. It just may be illegitimate. The Idaho Falls Post-Register quotes a guy in an eastern Idaho diner wondering if Obama released his paperwork “for political reasons or did he manufacture one?” After all, he had two years to produce the document and “I’m just asking,” the guy says.

As silly as political discourse has become in America, and with too much of the media lacking a filter to shut off the loud mouth de jour, there is something more troubling at play here. The something is deeply engrained in the political DNA of Americans.

For the haters of Roosevelt it wasn’t enough to oppose his policies, he had to be, at a time when anti-Semitism was hardly in the closet, exposed as a secret Jew. He must have been something sinister. He had to be unlike us, illegitimate. Google “was FDR a Jew” and you’ll find them. Like the poor, such folks will always be with us.

For Ali and Barack, it is the differences that count – the names, the color, the background. Accomplishment in the ring or on the Harvard Law Review or in the United States Senate or with the Nobel Peace Prize couldn’t possibly be legit. There must be some other explanation. These guys are different, foreign, not like the rest of us…illegitimate.

Remember all that talk a while back about a post-racial America. Not so fast apparently. I hope I live long enough to see it, but I’m certainly not counting on it.

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