By Thomas Hauser
In 1980, in response to the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan, the Carter Administration sought to organize a boycott of the Moscow Olympics. As part of that effort, it sent Muhammad Ali to five African nations to gather support for America's position. Ali's trip was a disaster. Time magazine later called it, "The most bizarre diplomatic mission in recent US history."
Some African officials viewed Ali's presence as a racial insult. "Would the United States send Chris Evert to negotiate with London?" one Tanzanian diplomat demanded.
Ali himself seemed confused regarding the facts underlying his role and was unable to explain why African nations should boycott the Moscow Olympics when, four years earlier, the United States had refused to join 29 African countries in boycotting the Montreal Olympics over South Africa's place in the sporting world.
"Maybe I'm being used to do something that ain't right," Ali conceded at one point. In Kenya, he announced that Jimmy Carter had put him "on the spot" and sent him "around the world to take the whupping over American policies," and said that, if he'd known the "whole history of America and South Africa," he "probably wouldn't have made the trip."
That bit of history is relevant now because Jack Valenti (president of the Motion Picture Association of America) has unveiled tentative plans for a one-minute public service announcement featuring Ali that will be broadcast throughout the Muslim world. The thrust of the message is that America's war on terrorism is not a war against Islam. The public service spot would be prepared by Hollywood 9/11 -- a group that was formed after movie industry executives met on November 11th with Karl Rove (a senior political advisor to George Bush). In Valenti's words, Ali would be held out as "the spokesman for Muslims in America."
The proposed public service announcement might be good publicity for the movie industry, but it's dangerous politics.
Ali is universally respected and loved, but he isn't a diplomat. He doesn't understand the complexities of geopolitics. His heart is pure, but his judgments and actions are at times unwise. An example of this occurred on December 19th at a fundraising event for the proposed Muhammad Ali Center. The center is intended to be an educational facility designed to promote tolerance and understanding among all people. At the fundraiser, Ali rose to tell several jokes.
"No! No! No! Don't," his wife Lonnie cried.
Despite her plea, Ali proceeded. "What's the difference between a Jew and a canoe?'' he asked. Then he supplied the answer: "A canoe tips.''
That was followed by, "A black, a Puerto Rican, and a Mexican are in a car. Who's driving?'' The answer? ''The police.''
Afterward, Sue Carls (a spokesperson for the Ali Center) sought to minimize the damage, explaining, "These are not new jokes. Muhammad tells them all the time because he likes to make people laugh, and he shocks people to make a point.'' Two days later, Lonnie Ali added, "Even the Greatest can tell bad jokes.''
The problem is, this is a situation where misjudgments and bad jokes can cost lives.
Ali is not a bigot. He tells far more "nigger" jokes than jokes about Hispanics and Jews. But Ali sometimes speaks and acts without considering the implications of his words and conduct. And he can be swayed by rhetoric; particularly when the speaker is a Muslim cleric with a following in some portion of the world.
What happens if, six months from now, Ali makes an intemperate statement about Israel? What happens if Ali calls for a halt to all American military action against terrorism in the heartfelt belief that a halt will save innocent lives? Will he then still be "the spokesman for Muslims in America."
Muhammad Ali leads best when he leads by example and by broad statements in support of tolerance and understanding among all people. To ask more of him in the current incendiary situation is looking for trouble.
To contact the author, please email: thauserrcn.com