Boston Globe Sports Columnist Dan Shaughnessy Thinks Basketball Legend Bob Cousy’s Presidential Medal of Freedom Speech Was Great — But Omits, Then Distorts, the Most Important Line From It

Published August 30th, 2019, Uncategorized

by Irvin Muchnick

In an embarrassing display of the art of the sycophantic fanboy sports column, the Boston Globe’s Dan Shaughnessy last week lauded as “Oval Office magic” — akin to Bob Cousy’s dribbling and passing wizardry — the former Boston Celtics great’s controversial White House speech last week in which he accepted the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Donald Trump.

The piece by Shaughnessy (who also holds the title of the Globe’s associate editor) ran under the headline “Bob Cousy chose his words very carefully at the White House,” https://www.bostonglobe.com/sports/celtics/2019/08/23/bob-cousy-chose-his-words-very-carefully-white-house/eVPXIJ7FgjgaB7aL9uFibK/story.html.

Shaughnessy’s sanity has seemed intact in other pieces of his that I’ve read over the years. On this occasion, he came off like a jackass on two levels.

The first was in the Globe. As I’ll explain, the problem is not that I disagree with him about the incandescence of Cousy’s oratory (though I do). The problem is that an entire column supposedly devoted to extolling the statesmanlike tone of public remarks, including the painstaking preparation of them, wound up quoting only a single ambiguous line from it, while withholding follow-up statements that sully Shaughnessy’s argument. This was intellectual dishonesty with a capital D.

The second level of Shaughnessy’s jackassery was his defensive tactics when called out for this lapse. In our emails, he proceeded to qualify a key something else said by Cousy (something the columnist mysteriously hadn’t bothered citing in the column) by either lazily misquoting it or willfully doctoring it. Then, like any bully who can dish it out but not take it, he descended into verbal abuse.

A Journalism 101 professor would grade this performance no higher than F. I’m reminded of the quip by Gore Vidal after Norman Mailer slugged him at a party: “Words, as usual, failed him.”

*****

Video of Cousy’s Medal of Freedom ceremony is viewable at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A5e33bHhTOk. As has been widely reported, Cousy used the occasion to call Trump “the most extraordinary president of my lifetime.”

Cousy also said — reported elsewhere but not in Shaughnessy’s Gettysburg Address parsing: “Mr. President, I know in your world you’re well on your way to making America great again. In my world, it’s been great for 91 years.”

Outside the event, Cousy said publicly that he intended to vote for Trump in 2020.

Shaughnessy’s column somewhat lamely belabored the idea that “extraordinary” does not necessarily mean extraordinarily good. The adjective could also connote extraordinarily bad, or just standalone extraordinary. Every listener could have his own aural Rorschach takeaway. Yes sir, the old point guard had distributed the ball beautifully. Nay — with rhetorical genius.

“We love you, Cooz!” Shaughnessy cooed.

Politely, I asked Shaughnessy to explain his editorial choices a little better. The response was a series of impatient non sequiturs.

I specifically asked why the clearly pertinent “making America great” line ended up on the cutting-room floor. After all, this is only Trump’s campaign slogan.

Shaughnessy: “Yes. And then he said, ‘But Mr President, as far as I’m concerned it’s been great for 91 years.’”

No he did not. The video and quote above establish that in privately citing a passage he was apparently too cowardly to analyze publicly, Shaughnessy mangled it. The words But Mr. President may have been implied, especially for Cousy’s apologists. Or they may not have been. In the generous reading, the sentence carried the freight of ambiguity within ambiguity.

What a great communicator!

Shaughnessy’s next defense gambit was this: “Jesus, he doesn’t have the nuclear codes.” Of course, no one in this debate is arguing that Cousy had the nuclear codes. I know: Shaughnessy wasn’t being literal. But in the column, Cousy is portrayed as the benign whisperer, the unifier. He doesn’t have temporal power, obviously. But if the point of what Shaughnessy wrote isn’t that the speech had spiritual power, then why did he write it in the first place?

“If you want more, find him yourself,” Shaughnessy harrumphed. Sorry, Shaughny: Bob Cousy was the person who gave the speech, not the person who wrote in high praise of the speech in a major newspaper. That person would be the associate editor of the Boston Globe, Dan Shaughnessy.

*****

As I told Shaughnessy at the outset of our fast-deteriorating electronic conversation, I am not among the partisans who need to beat up on an old man for not threading the needle while he was being handed a lifetime achievement award. Further, I appreciate that the New England community, where he led the Celtics to six National Basketball Association championships and helped put the NBA on the map, has a more special relationship with Cousy than do some of the rest of us. Even if bogus — the celebrity’s fool’s gold of intimacy — it gives fans a sense of connection, something all of us fall for it in some form and in some settings. A measure of deference should be paid to it. By the same token, the recipient of such adulation bears responsibility for how he exploits it.

I simply object to the notion that Cousy indeed threaded the needle, when the evidence is clear that he did not.

While we’re at it, I wonder if we should rethink this whole Presidential Medal of Freedom thing for jocks who were just kind of there, living for decades, for major century portions, off the residuals of the memories of spectacles. I think we’d be better off if presidents of both parties reserved such honors for substantial contributions to society off the playing court or field.

And I say all this as a native of St. Louis, where Cardinals baseball great Stan Musial was the amiable, off-the-shelf mascot of … nothing, really, from his retirement in 1963 (same year as Cousy’s) until his death in 2013. For all intents and purposes, Musial was a walking autograph. In 2010 President Barack Obama bestowed the Medal of Freedom on him.

There exist, indeed, fragmentary anecdotes of Musial’s private kindnesses, including to the first African-American players allowed into Major League Baseball. I suppose they’re true. But Musial didn’t use his 1969 Baseball Hall of Fame induction speech to say anything penetrating. By contrast, in 1966, the surly and almost universally disliked Ted Williams did just that — passionately arguing for due recognition of the great players from the old Negro Leagues. If Musial hadn’t been a longtime Democratic Party campaign donor, I doubt he would have been honored at the White House in his senescence.

What Stan Musial actually represented, as his former teammate and ex-hometown good friend Joe Garagiola noted near the end of their lives, was someone who “never said the wrong thing in public.” Garagiola knew. In the 1980s these two local favorites got into a dispute over a bowling alley they co-owned, and little known to the public, their friendship shattered in bitter business litigation. Later, when Musial was asked to throw out the ceremonial first pitch of a World Series game in St. Louis, he demanded that his participation be put off until a later game, after Garagiola had left town.

For my money, Garagiola — a post-playing career broadcast giant who co-founded the Baseball Assistance Team (BAT), which helped needy ex-players from the era before high salaries and union-bargained pension plans, and campaigned against chewing tobacco — led a far more accomplished life than Musial. Again, I’m talking about engagement in works in the larger world. Garagiola’s testimony against Curt Flood in the landmark Supreme Court case that helped end baseball’s reserve clause was unfortunate (though it’s a mistake almost everyone from that period owned). I disliked Garagiola’s high-profile endorsement of Gerald Ford in the 1976 presidential election. But the point is that he seemed to recognize that his public persona flowed from something more substantial than his four hits in a game in the 1946 World Series.

*****

I don’t know where exactly Bob Cousy fits on this continuum. I only know what I’ve read about him. He appears to have struggled for many years, like great ex-athletes white, black, and orange, to find a meaningful post-retirement voice.

After ending his playing career, Cousy had undistinguished coaching runs with Boston College and the NBA’s Cincinnati (then Kansas City/Omaha) Royals.

The most pathetic line in Cousy’s curriculum vitae was his tenure, 1974-79, as commissioner of the American Soccer League. At his introductory press conference, he said he needed a job and admitted that he didn’t know a damn thing about soccer. Disarmingly cute, maybe — but he was still peddling that line five years later, when the league’s bosses decided to cut their losses on the failed PR stunt of his hire.

Shaughnessy’s column portrayed Cousy as a bibliophile and a Jesuitical deep thinker, from his education at Holy Cross University. Shaughnessy was not the first to retail the anecdote of Cousy’s reaching out to fellow Celtics great Bill Russell after reading the Ta-Nehisi Coates book Between the World and Me, and apologizing to Russell for not having appreciated how much he had gone through, between iconography as a black athlete in Boston and political activism in the 1960s and beyond. In light of Cousy’s political support for Trump, I fear that National Book Award-winning literature was being used for human cover.

When I was a kid, I read Cousy’s book Basketball Is My Life, ghosted by Boston sportswriter Al Hirshberg. Cousy recounted the painful Jim Crow experience of a black teammate at a preseason tour stop in Raleigh, North Carolina. My memory is that Cousy went on in his books to refer to Russell by the somewhat patronizing term “crusader.” In context, this was meant as a compliment but it reflected scant understanding of what it must have been like for this athletically and intellectually brilliant black man to be inventing big-man modern basketball, for all practical purposes, in a time and place where Cousy — by dint of simply dribbling, passing, and shooting while being white — was a default icon.

According to the Shaughnessy column, “Cousy’s late-life introspection inspired a best-selling book (The Last Pass) by author Gary Pomerantz.” Cool. If the Cooz has grown as a person, that is a good thing. We all should.

But did Bob Cousy kill it in the Oval Office last week? Not at all.

Mostly, I think Dan Shaughnessy played bad faith with his readers, and made a jackass out of himself, on and off the printed page, in his quest to spin to a different conclusion.