The video clip of Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., shouting “You lie!” at President Barack Obama during his recent health-care speech before a joint session of Congress has now been replayed on various TV outlets a combined total of 5,237 times. This is admittedly an extrapolation on my part, based on my personally having seen the clip 353 times despite diligent rationing of my news-viewing hours, but I think the guesstimate is about right. It was during my 344th or 345th exposure to the questionably spontaneous outburst and the President’s reaction – the surprise and then either rueful or wry amusement that crossed his face briefly before he refocused – that a name came to mind: Jackie Robinson.
Robinson was, of course, the infield whiz from Cairo, Georgia, who broke Major League Baseball’s “color barrier.” Branch Rickey, who was running the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1940s, knew well what amazing talent there was in the Negro Leagues, and he wanted to integrate his team. He picked Robinson, a star with the Kansas City Monarchs, as much for his temperament as his athletic ability. In a legendarily intense role-playing session, Rickey subjected Robinson to no-epithets-barred simulations of the sort of ugliness that was going to greet him, posing as an unabashedly racist hotel clerk, a bigoted sportswriter, a hostile opponent and more.
At one point, Robinson reportedly blurted out, “Mr. Rickey, do you want a ballplayer that’s afraid to fight back?” To which Rickey is said to have replied, “I want a ball player with guts enough not to fight back.”
Sure enough, when Robinson made his road-game debut with the Dodgers against Cincinnati in 1947, he was subjected not only to boos and racial insults from Redleg fans but to flying bottles. He endured taunts and spikes and airborne objects for game after game that season with incredible self-control, composure and dignity. He never rose to the bait.
I don’t think we have nearly as many racists per capita in our country as we did in Robinson’s heyday. And despite protest signs that refer to President Obama as a “Lyin’ African” or encourage him to go “back to Kenya,” I don’t think what he’s had to put up with comes close to the virulence of what Jackie Robinson experienced.
Still, when I see that clip of President Obama reacting to Wilson’s disrespect — when I see him pause briefly, like a third baseman with astonishing reflexes watching a bottle or a bean-ball sail by his head, and then get back down to business — my respect for his self-control, composure and dignity couldn’t get much higher. He doesn’t take the bait.
He’s the Jackie Robinson of presidential politics, and perhaps more impressive still, he’s his own wise counsel, his own Branch Rickey.