As President Donald Trump ended an almost-century-long campaign by granting a pardon to Jack Johnson, the unfairly convicted boxing champion, a question hung in many minds like a ghost: Why didn’t President Barack Obama do it when he had the chance?
If it slipped anyone’s notice as to who was beating whom to the punch in honoring the first African American world heavyweight boxing champ, the current president was happy to remind us:
“Congress has supported numerous resolutions calling for Johnson’s pardon,” said Trump in the White House ceremony. “… No President ever signed it, surprisingly. They thought it was going to be signed in the last administration and that didn’t happen. So that was very disappointing for a lot of people.”
Flanked by boxing champions and actor Sylvester Stallone, the “Rocky” star who brought Johnson’s case to Trump’s attention, the president noted that his action enjoyed widespread bipartisan support, “including from the Congressional Black Caucus,” which “supported it very, very powerfully, very strongly.”
We get it. The nation’s first African-American president dragged his heels on issuing a posthumous pardon to Johnson. Instead he left the task to Trump, whose civil rights record, to put it mildly, has attracted critics like a cow pasture attracts flies.
How did that happen? Ironically, in the case of Johnson’s pardon, 105 years after the champ’s baseless conviction for violating the Mann Act – a crime that amounted to traveling with a white woman – Trump’s shoot-from-the-lip style appears to have paid off. President Obama, like President George W. Bush before him, deliberated thoroughly and sought a Justice Department recommendation before granting clemency. But the recommendation never came.
Bush and Obama, like most presidents before them, rigorously adhered to the norms of their high office. Remember norms? Trump treats norms like porn star Stormy Daniels treats clothing in her stripper act, as if they only get in the way of his performance.
Trump, by contrast, didn’t wait for anybody else’s approval. After longtime friend Stallone made a personal plea for Trump to grant the pardon, Trump apparently spent little time, if any, burrowing through Washington red tape before he took action. He just did it.
That may be just as well, considering the unfortunate racial tinge to Washington’s gridlock in the Obama era.
Filmmaker Ken Burns, whose 2004 PBS documentary on Johnson, “Unforgivable Blackness,” spurred the latest movement to pardon him, recalled in a USA Today interview that the Office of the Pardon Attorney flatly shot down the application during the Bush years. Team Bush cited longstanding Justice Department policy that gave priority to applicants who were still alive and thus “can truly benefit from a grant of clemency.”
Johnson himself had applied for a pardon in 1920, as he served a 10-month sentence for his 1913 conviction. Even the attorney general at that time noted that the law was intended to punish human trafficking, not consensual relationships.
When Obama took office, many saw a natural ally in Johnson’s cause, but he, too, stuck with the Justice Department’s policy against posthumous pardons.
“Could you imagine what would happen, given the racial dimension of this, if a black president and a black attorney general had suggested a posthumous pardon for Jack Johnson?” Burns told USA Today.
That black attorney general, Eric Holder, sympathized. There was “no question” that Johnson’s conviction was a historical injustice, Holder told a New York television station in 2016. However, he said, there were “countervailing concerns about the way he treated women.”
Reports and rumors of womanizing and physical abuse added an element of controversy that has only grown during the current era of #MeToo.
It seems piquantly appropriate, then, that Trump, whose language and alleged behavior have been targeted and condemned by the #MeToo movement, among others, would be the president to defy today’s political etiquette on behalf of Johnson, who flamboyantly defied the racist politics of his day.
And I say that’s OK. Considering the bizarro nature of Trumpian policies, as some of my Twitter followers sarcastically observed, if Obama had pardoned Johnson, Trump might well have tried to reverse it, just as he has tried to purge every other remnant of Obama’s legacy.
Instead, a man who often has been criticized – often with justification – for racial insensitivity gets credit for granting the symbolic, yet still significant, pardon to Johnson. I have been a frequent critic of Trump’s bull-in-a-china-shop style. But this time he scored a knockout.