The Sound Of the Fury
By Sally Jenkins
Saturday, April 12, 2003
AUGUSTA, Ga.- There is some argument from Martha Burk as to whether a bullhorn is sufficient to get her point across. You can see how she might feel that way, given all the magnet loonies and sorehead cranks she has attracted to Augusta, and whom she is now struggling to be heard above, including that group of beloved high jinksers, People Against Ridiculous Protests (PARP), who are, sadly, threatening not to picket at all but to have a barbecue instead.
Inside the gates of Augusta National the mindless silence of golf reigned, but just outside, the casual sidewalk spectator could enjoy the sounds of comedic cross-debate and high idiocy on the subject of the club's all-male membership policy, both from Burk's people and their rivals. The combination of which was like listening to competing leaf-blowers, bad metal hinges, unpracticed trombonists and large dogs chewing on rawhide sticks.
On Friday morning, Augusta sheriff Ronald Strength held a sort of dress rehearsal for Saturday's day of protest at the Masters, inviting prospective demonstrators to meet with him on the crabgrass-covered empty lot that has been assigned. The highlight of the meeting was the contention by one of Burk's representatives that a bullhorn isn't enough and she needs an amplifier for her protest against the club's all-male membership policy. The request was mercifully denied by law enforcement since, judging by the warmup, it's liable to be a Field of Screams anyway.
What does it say that the police seem easygoing compared to the demonstrators? As Strength and his deputies cheerfully laid down the rules, they chatted amiably, sipped coffee, and generally looked pleased to have something to do other than wait for traffic accidents or ask patrons not to wear spikes in the clubhouse. "I want to make sure we're all singing from the same sheet of music here, folks," Strength said.
Meantime, Alice Cohan stood in the field in bead earrings and a Mexican shawl, arguing each point in a voice that had the tonal quality of an electronic smoke detector. She's on the steering committee of the National Council of Women's Organizations and is a logistics liaison for Burk. She played verbal chess with Augusta's sheriff over what protestors can and can't do and lobbied for amplifiers so that protestors could "share First Amendment rights."
Todd Manzi instantly confronted her. He's a rival demonstrator who has devoted the last few months to an anti-Burk campaign called The Burk Stops Here. His voice sounded like the backup warning beep on a tractor.
"I just want you to know you don't speak for all women," he said.
"How many people will you bring?" she asked, sarcastically.
"Um, two or three," he said, sheepishly.
He had applied for a permit for 500. But hey, a guy can dream, can't he?
Then there are the one-man protestors, such as Dave Walker, who wore a peaked cap stitched with the slogan, "Give War a Chance," and an American flag on a stick poking out of his jacket pocket. Walker is his own fully licensed demonstration; on his permit, it says, "Dave Walker's Support of the War on Iraq." Listening to him was like listening to a metal ash can rolling down an asphalt street.
"So you're here to support the war, not because of the tournament?"
"What did I just say?" he screamed. "I don't stutter!!"
Walker waved his hands as he shouted, and his flag fell from his pocket. I picked it up.
"Here. You dropped your flag."
"Thank you," he said, jabbing a finger at me. "You're a great American!"
This will be Burk's company in the field adjacent to Augusta National, and if it's funny, it's also too bad. Initially, Burk's campaign was worth listening to, and at times even persuasive. Whatever you thought of her position, she provoked one of the livelier and more interesting debates in sports in a long time. But her problem has become one of tone. The ranting goes both ways. Christine Brennan, the columnist for USA Today whose article on Augusta first brought the all-male issue to Burk's attention 10 months ago, has been virtually demonized in some circles. Earlier this week, Sporting News radio talk show host "Papa Joe" Chevalier held court at a joint called Stoolpigeons and railed against Brennan as "worthless and troublesome" as well as a "militant feminist" and "agent provocateur."
I personally was so delighted by the characterization of Brennan as "worthless and troublesome" that I couldn't wait to tell her about it at dinner. Brennan is an old friend and colleague who worked for The Washington Post for many years. She's no firebreather; she's a conservative Republican from Toledo, and so wholesome and affable that an act of headlong excess for her is to leave the butter out overnight. Even in her most heated moments, she struggles to be argumentative. A few years ago, when she was covering the Washington Redskins, she got into a dispute with team owner Jack Kent Cooke about her work. Brennan, in defending herself, rose to her full height, and shot back, "Nuts to you, mister."
Burk should be so calm and good-humored an adversary. And it wouldn't hurt if, like Brennan, she was sneaky funny and self-mocking. The other night, Brennan stood in front of the restaurant after dinner, waiting for her car.
Ahead of us in line was a raffish southern gent in a golf shirt, holding a glass of brown liquid and melting ice in one hand and car keys in the other, as he did his best to persuade us to come dancing with him at Coconuts nightclub. Brennan, unmoved, politely declined. He kept trying.
"Who are you ladies, anyhow?" he asked.
"We're Hootie's daughters," she said.
A more reasonable tone by Burk might open ears -- and, frankly, anyone who thinks something's too serious to be joked about is probably wrong anyway. More and more, the problem with Burk's argument is not just that it's highly debatable but that she tries to grimly force feed it, until you begin to wonder how she ever got a reputation as an advocate.
Any effective public messenger understands that communication is highly nuanced and contextual -- you don't whisper at a forest fire or yell at the ballet. But the weaker Burk's stance, the louder she gets, and by numbing the public ear on the issue, she's done her cause more harm than good.