Friday, July 24, 2009
The President and the Cop and the Locker Room
When President Obama called the Cambridge policeman whom he had criticized a day or two ago for his role in the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., it reminded me of something written years ago by former newspaper colleague Lowell Cohn.
Cohn was a San Francisco Chronicle columnist during my tenure at the paper in the Eighties. We had an odd bond. We both had PhDs in English literature, mine from Duke and his from Stanford. We both had the good sense to disguise our provenance -- and not to use words like provenance.
I don't know if Lowell's degree explained it, but his columns usually came at the games he covered from a slightly different angle than his fellow columnists, if playful, then playful in different ways, if exploring the psychology of the game, coming at that psychology from a different angle. It's hard to remember specifics, and I'm not accusing him of being literary. He had a different quality of mind, not necessarily better than the other columnists, just different. Sometimes he would explain what every sportswriter knew and never thought to share with readers. He understood that the obvious sometimes wasn't.
The column I particularly recall -- and the one the Obama phone call brought to mind -- followed an earlier column in which he had in some way criticized Giants outfielder Jeffrey Leonard, who I think had the nickname "Penitentiary Face." Leonard was a tough-looking guy, with the capacity to intimidate fans, teammates and, naturally, sportswriters.
Lowell explained how the baseball "code" demanded that after a sportswriter was perceived to have criticized an athlete, the manly act was to march into the locker room as soon as possible, seek out the athlete and allow the athlete to berate him publicly. That's what Lowell did after criticizing Leonard, and then .... I don't remember what happened. I don't remember the column in that much detail.
I *think* Lowell said that Leonard appreciate his offering himself up and that afterwards they had a pretty good relationship.
The point of the phone call is that Obama knows the code of manhood. Did the he fumble the moment by suggesting the Cambridge officer was stupid -- well, behaved stupidly; I concede there is a valuable distinction between adverb and adjective, an "existential" distinction.
However, you parse it, the President manned up. He called the guy to clear the air, and I admire him for it, though it's certainly true that when it comes to clearing the air, as President, he had the wind at his back.