Hank in the Middle

By Don Rollins

In 1995 I walked – no, ran – out of a Hank Williams Jr. concert. In his defense, the two opening acts (what was left of the Marshall Tucker and Charlie Daniels Bands) had spent at least half their sets preaching a God n’ Guns gospel to the mostly appreciative throngs.

So when Junior hit the stage and proceeded to do likewise, it was time to blow that tent revival. (A decision made all the easier by the four completely plowed, flag-caped, cowboy-hatted frat boys sitting smack in front of me.)

All these years later, Junior is still at it. Say what you will, the guy’s a model of conservative consistency.

Unreconstructed and unbowed, Bocephus (the nickname given him by his legendary daddy) continues to bolster Republican campaigns and platforms, cast himself as friend to the patriotic working stiff and heap vitriol on the “leftist socialists” he swears are demolishing the American way of life.

But earlier this month Junior outdid himself. During an Oct. 3 Fox & Friends interview, he began breaking down – with vintage Bocephus panache – that admittedly silly, very public round of golf between House Speaker John Boehner and the President. It began with Junior just being Junior, but things went south when he likened the twosome to Hitler on the links with Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu.

Junior’s Monday Night Football employer, ESPN, was not amused. The network took quick exception and quicker action. Hank was pulled, pronto. Williams’ version is that he walked. ESPN says they canned him. Either way, he’s lip synched his last MNF lead-in.

Now, MNF is the Hall of Fame of goofy gaffes (see Howard Cosell on race, Ron Jaworski on salty language and Don Meredith on just about anything). So this parting of the ways is already fading into a football footnote, just as it should. But more telling than Junior’s appeals to victimhood and free speech violation is the changing corporate context that made the move a no-brainer.

Beginning with the late ’60s, corporate America began overhauling the way it behaves on TV. Big Tobacco was banned from the airwaves. Forward thinking, bottom-line ad execs called for less gender typecasting and fewer racial stereotypes. Sporting phenoms began losing lucrative endorsements in the wake of indiscretions, proven and unproven.

So when ESPN dropped the ax on Williams, it was squarely in line with 21st-century marketing best practices.

The network, and ABC before it, indulged Junior and his Fox-fueled devotees for years, even as he became increasingly reckless with his attacks on Democrats.

Still the news came as a jaw-dropper for Hank Nation.

(Could we all just agree that Hitler analogies apply only to Hitler?)

Yet clearly all this nuance was lost in the din of reactionary conservative protest. And Fox helped Williams shape his own narrative in First Amendment terms. In a Hannity follow-up interview, Junior claimed the mantle of the Everyman, saying that, “If I’m in trouble, everybody’s in trouble.”

But Junior’s not an Everyman; he’s a middle man. He’s a black-and-white guy from another era who stepped into a gray area he doesn’t even seem to know exists. In the end, the outcome was the right one. Williams got to go down swinging and ESPN could rest assured that the MNF brand name would trump any residual rightist indignation.

Call it the market correcting itself.

Rev. Don Rollins is Interim Minister, Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Raleigh, N.C. Email donaldlrollins@gmail.com.

From The Progressive Populist, November 15, 2011


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