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On Second Thought

Historically ignorant

By Kevin Paul Dupont
Globe Staff / October 9, 2011

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No way could Hank Williams Jr. have been asked back by ESPN after his faux pas on Fox News in which he compared Barack Obama to Adolf Hitler. Nearly a week later, and a few million news cycles gone by, most everyone knows the 62-year-old country singer essentially cracked his guitar over his own head with his lame-brained comparison.

Perhaps he inflicted the wound before he went on “Fox & Friends.’’ Maybe he just got all liquored up, like some character in a country-western song. No telling. Whatever his state of mind, Williams went there, haphazardly invoking the name of perhaps the most evil character in world history, trying to work a laugh and boastfully adding, “I’m telling you like it is.’’

Thankfully, ESPN and “Monday Night Football’’ formally parted ways with Williams Thursday.

“Hitler remains the third rail of society,’’ a Jewish friend said to me a couple of days after ESPN yanked Williams and his trademark line, “Are you ready for some football?’’ from its Monday night game between the Colts and Buccaneers. “You just don’t touch the subject. It’s lethal. And it should be.’’

“What concerns me most when someone says something like that,’’ said another longtime Jewish friend, “isn’t the comparison per se, but how it trivializes what Hitler did. It begins to fit Hitler in with, oh, let’s see, Attila the Hun. Well, all these centuries later, if someone says, ‘Attila the Hun,’ the reference is almost comedic or mythical. There’ll never be anything funny or mythical about Hitler.’’

Williams mocked the well-chronicled golf date in June that had President Obama playing what looked like a friendly round with Speaker of the House John Boehner. Based on the pictures we saw of that outing, the day seemed to go OK. Based on the choppy 18 of politics between the two ever since, it’s hard to imagine their smiles were anything but fake.

Williams, most likely figuring he was among ideological friends on Fox, said the Obama-Boehner pairing was akin to Hitler playing golf with Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister.

A dismayed Gretchen Carlson, one of the show’s hosts, immediately picked up on Williams’s comment, noting that he had “used the name of one of the most hated people in all of the world to describe, I think, the President.’’

“Well, that is true,’’ huffed Williams, “but I’m telling you like it is.’’

For those still alive who can recount first-hand Hitler’s evil, or for those who learned of it along the way these last 65-70 years, that’s just not the case. It’s a hurtful, ignorant, abominable comparison and a distortion of history.

As German chancellor in the years 1933-45, Hitler oversaw the killing of some 17 million people, nearly one-third of whom were Jews, all part of his sick, twisted vision of racial purity. A coward at his core, he eventually killed himself, though not soon enough, and by that time, nearly two out of every three Jews in Europe had been exterminated in the Holocaust.

Williams, born in Shreveport, La., in 1949, presumably was in grade school, his memories beginning to take shape, only 10 years after Hitler killed himself. I am only four years younger, and I know Hitler was still talked of regularly in my neighborhood and in my school well into the ’60s.

I don’t know what they talked about in Shreveport, but here in the Northeast, our mothers and fathers spoke routinely of World War II, often about family and friends who perished, and about the atrocities perpetuated by Hitler.

With all that as backdrop, Williams shamefully reached for the “H- word’’ and tried to get a chuckle, using Obama as the foil. It was disgusting. Within hours, ESPN issued a statement, noting that it was “extremely disappointed’’ in Williams and that he was off that night’s show.

Three days later, ESPN permanently severed the relationship, no doubt knowing that bringing him back would be a grandiose insult, not just to the network’s Jewish viewers, but to the viewing public at large.

Ron Kaplan, who writes “Kaplan’s Korner,’’ a blog chronicling the accomplishments of Jewish athletes past and present, equated the singer’s joke with statements made by former Los Angeles Dodgers general manager Al Campanis during an April 1987 appearance on ABC’s “Nightline.’’

The subject of that show was Jackie Robinson, and where baseball stood 40 years after the great Dodger broke the game’s color line. Anchorman Ted Koppel asked why there were so few black managers and GMs in the game, which led Campanis into a ridiculous explanation about how blacks lacked “some of the necessities’’ for those jobs. Worse, the 71-year-old Campanis added that blacks are poor swimmers because they lacked “buoyancy.’’

Koppel gave Campanis ample opportunity to back off his words, but he didn’t, and the ensuing flap led Campanis to resign within 72 hours of the interview.

“Hank Williams is not a profound thinker, obviously,’’ said Kaplan. “It’s scary to me, though, that he obviously has a following, just as ‘Monday Night Football’ has a large audience, and you wonder, ‘Does he speak for some segment of our society?’ I hope he doesn’t have that much juice, and I truly don’t think he does.’’

Campanis’s remarks, and his subsequent resignation, got a lot of people talking. Some virtue came of his stupidity, his blunder. America more closely scrutinized its national pastime, and the game took some steps toward giving minorities more managerial and front office opportunities. Sometimes it takes hideous comments to provide a catalyst, make people question, think, remember.

Kaplan, for one, isn’t buying that in Williams’s case.

“I’ll respectfully disagree,’’ Kaplan said. “We don’t need help to bring it up, to remember, especially from someone like him. He’s not going to teach us anything. We don’t need to know his thoughts.

“When something happens like this, they aren’t doing us any favors. I know in New Jersey, they teach about the Holocaust in the public schools, and I hope that’s true in all the states.

“I hope enough people in the country are smart enough to know what happened, and that their attention span isn’t so short that they’ve forgotten it.’’

Never forget. If Williams forgot, then he has probably had his memory jogged by now. If he didn’t know, that’s even scarier.

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at dupont@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeKPD.

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