Profound Questions: Is it OK to dunk on the president?
Originally published September 17, 2009
Back in 2009, McSweeneys.net started a competition searching for "columnists." I was among the first batch of winners. "Chris White Answers Profound Questions About the Presidents" ran for a year, with a few additional installments added afterward.
There are men who have been dunked on and went on to become president. There may have been backroom fundraisers where a former president has been dunked on, for a price. But has anyone ever driven the lane, put a hip into the commander in chief and thrown it down hard in his face? And then hung on the rim screaming for a few seconds? And then flashed the omega?
A quick survey suggests a firm "no." The first basketball-era POTUS, 300-pound Grover Cleveland, did not pound the boards; dunking on Franklin Roosevelt would have been a hate crime; Reagan was a bit on the old side. Et cetera et cetera.
So it seems then that LeBron James, should he take up Barack Obama's recent invitation to hoop it up on the "repurposed" White House tennis court, has a chance to be the first man to throw down on the leader of the free world. If he broke the backboard doing so he'd be a folk song.
But history, like the Cheesecake Factory, is about tough choices, and so we must ask: SHOULD anyone dunk on the president?
It might be in the public interest. We have legislative checks and balances, but there's a folksy charm to anything that might keep the most powerful man in the world grounded, like family, or polio, or having a basketball rain down on your skull while your opponent holds his crotch at eye level for a few seconds. Jeffersonians should find the concept a little appealing.
On the other hand, we could be dealing with a devastating loss of dignity and respect: a dunking so vicious that the image lingers, burns off years of political capital and christens an epic lame duck period. It's hard to get behind the paradigm-changing health reforms of a man who has been posterized (and not by Stalinesque street artists this time). And if you can't protect the lane, how can you stare down the North Koreans over long-range missile tests? Any second you might have a screaming flashback to that obscene tomahawk jam. If a video of said dunk gets to YouTube, Oahu is reduced to radioactive dust, denting Hawaii's economy a tad, and the Chinese are now in charge of international relations for the next generation. Those who doubt the power of dunking should note that Nike just confiscated video of a college player dunking on LeBron James at a basketball camp, undoubtedly in an effort to protect global shoe manufacturing and stave off a second Depression.
The record tells us that there is some leeway. The president doesn't have to win at everything. Teddy Roosevelt was our most competitive leader; at the replica of his Manhattan birthplace you can see a copy of the home gym where he dunked on asthma (an inspiring possibility for our future health care! I estimate billions in savings if we would all just cure our own asthma and diabetes). But he was almost blind in one eye from boxing injuries suffered while president, which generally doesn't happen if you're winning. Wife Edith installed the original White House tennis court to help contain his girth; he made a habit of playing dignitaries, occasionally in view of passing tourists, and if you're willing to drop a set to the French ambassador while Okies gawk from a nearby buckboard, then merely losing can't be that big of a deal.
In Gettysburg you can stroll on Eisenhower's backyard putting green (our only executive in the golf hall of fame -- suck on that, Harding), but much as I have never mastered the Bowflex in my home, the general was no golfing phenom. However, his inability to defeat a 17th hole tree, or institutional racism, at Augusta National did not squander the goodwill earned by beating Hitler. As we are all on occasion losers, we can relate to a degree of losing.
But we have our limits. There is the sad case of Gerald Rudolph Ford, who despite being a star athlete in a major college football program was dunked on by airplane stairs. He never really recovered. And we can imagine a vastly different 20th century if TMZ had been around to score unedited footage of Kennedy family touch football games.
The key is discretion: if you're going to dunk on the president, be dignified about it. Don't have cameras around and don't brag about it afterward in your Twitter feed. Instead, sleep soundly knowing that your humility-inducing thunderdunk might be the only thing deflating the cataclysmic hubris of one-party rule, and that your silence has kept the successful mediation of a two-state solution viable. Your competitive fires may rage without consuming our national honor. Considering that bowling a 30 in public almost cost our leader a shot at the White House, I'm guessing he'd agree.
Or, if you're a Republican invited to the court as part of the new era of bipartisanship, take the soul to the hole! Dunking on Obama's face would make you the automatic front-runner for 2012. If she's at all smart, Sarah Palin will spends the next two years working on her quads. From the party of Lincoln to the party of BOOYAKAH? Now that's strategy that speaks to the people.