Politics & Policy

Hootie Vs. Hootie

EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece appeared in the January 27, 2003, issue of National Review.

It’s strange that Augusta National’s membership rolls should be such a big news story. Then too, it was strange that the 1948 presidential campaign should have been a big story–in December 2002. Who knows how these things come about?

Well, I do–certainly in the case of Augusta National. The campaign to force the storied club to accept women members is the handiwork of two persons, primarily: Martha Burk, “chair” (as she says) of a group called the National Council of Women’s Organizations, and Howell Raines, executive editor of the New York Times. Both have found a calling of sorts.

Augusta National is revered by much of this country, not least because it was founded by Bobby Jones, one of the greatest sports figures in our history, and because it hosts a touchstone tournament, the Masters. But the club is a soft target for activists, lampooners, crabs, and other nuisances: It’s a golf club, first of all–always an object of mockery; it is a unique and exclusive one, famously hard to get into; it adheres to all manner of traditions, some of them laudable, some of them sort of silly; and it’s located in the South. What could be more puncturable?

Listen to a columnist riffing and chortling in the Washington Post: “When boys build a neat treehouse, ‘Members Only’ is the first sign that goes up. Though, at the age when such things matter, the ’s’ in ‘members’ may be printed backwards. You need a special handshake, maybe give a drop of blood. As for icky girls, they can’t come in at all. The most famous treehouse in America for little boys of all ages is located in the Georgia pines of Augusta. It’s ‘Spanky and Our Gang’ for millionaires.”

And who are these privileged and comical clubmates? Why, “Spanky, Alfalfa, and Hootie.”

Who’s Hootie? Ah, there’s the killer. Why did he have to be named “Hootie”? Why did the current chairman of the Augusta National Golf Club have to be William W. (Hootie) Johnson, known to one and all by that nickname? This is Christmas morning–and Kwanzaa and the Fourth of July and everything else–for Augusta-bashers, and ridiculers. It seems to confirm everything they want to believe about this peculiar and proud club: Of course the chairman would be named Hootie (if not Rufus, or Jefferson–as in Davis, of course, not the third president, slaveholder that he was).

Funny thing is, Johnson, a banker, has always been known as a progressive in his home state of South Carolina. He was a mover in the desegregation of the state’s colleges and universities. He was a board member of the National Urban League (for heaven’s sake). He was a trustee of Benedict College (a “historically black” institution). He received the Outstanding Citizen Award from the national B’nai B’rith–the only South Carolinian besides Bernard Baruch to be so honored, says one account of him.

No matter: In the national press now, he’s just Hootie the Hoot, an “old coot,” a cracker–some Bilbo or Boss Hogg.

And Martha Burk? Her bio describes her as a “political psychologist and women’s equity expert,” who has served on the board of NOW. Here’s how she got the idea of going after Augusta National: As she related to that same Washington Post, she was watching last year’s Masters on television. “The tournament was over, Tiger Woods has won, and it’s time for the green jacket. So this guy comes out on camera and he says . . . ‘A’hm Hootie Johnson, prezzz-a-dint of thuh Uh-gust-a National Golf Club.’” And Ms. Burk thought to herself, “Hootie Johnson, Ah’m a-gonna wraaaht yew uh letter!”

All class, this lady. One quirk of this story is that Martha Burk’s childhood nickname was . . . Hootie. But, she says, meaningfully, “at some point I outgrew it.” As for the moniker’s relation to Chairman Johnson, “It’s kind of cute, but it’s a little hard to take a Hootie as seriously as you would a William or a Bill.”

Yes. Anyway, she did indeed write Johnson a letter, and it was a classic of the genre. While subtle in spots, it said, essentially, “Start admitting women as members, or else.” It was signed, “Martha Burk, Ph.D., Chair.”

After Johnson got the letter, something very weird happened: He didn’t wring his hands or ask for mercy or seek a quick, quiet solution. He came out firing. He went on the offensive. Rather like President Bush, he embraced a policy of preemption. Unlike the president (so far), he implemented it. In a personal letter, he told Dr. Burk–again, essentially–to stuff it. Then, in an official “statement,” he warned of an anti-Augusta campaign ahead, complete with pickets, boycotts, and even Internet websites. But, he vowed, “we will not be bullied, threatened, or intimidated.” It was clear that “Dr. Burk and her colleagues view themselves as agents of change and feel any organization that has stood the test of time and has strong roots in tradition–and does not fit their profile–needs to be changed. We do not intend to become a trophy in their display case.” The chairman concluded, “There may well come a day when women will be invited to join our membership, but that timetable will be ours, and not at the point of a bayonet.”

Well. That is about as strong a conservative statement as we have heard in a long time. Johnson was “taking his stand,” as surely as John Crowe Ransom and all those other signers of the Southern Manifesto were doing. But was this a reprehensible stand? Was this some version of standing in the schoolhouse door? No, Johnson has insisted–repeatedly and eloquently (if with rough eloquence). There’s nothing immoral or shameful–not to mention illegal–about an all-male club, or an all-female club, for that matter. Don’t talk to me about civil rights, he says. This is an entirely different cat.

Hootie Johnson finds himself standing athwart history yelling, Stop–or rather, Y’all go on without Augusta.

Martha Burk, of course, did not stop. She threatened the commercial sponsors of the Masters telecast–Johnson said, “Okay, we’ll do without sponsors. Why should they have to suffer from what is really a campaign against us?” She demanded that CBS stop broadcasting the tournament. The network said no thanks. She pressured the players–particularly Tiger Woods (a “minority,” you know). She pressured individual members and their employers. She called on the PGA Tour to cease to recognize the Masters as an official event. She secured and published the membership rolls–”outing” the old fools, as she said.

And through it all, Hootie Johnson fumed. But he stood his ground, reasoning that Augusta National and its tournament were a good thing, and that attempts to sully them, or “reform” them, should fail.

The chairman is undoubtedly a piece of work. He rarely gives interviews, but when he does, he’s about the bluntest, most irascible, most straight-talkin’ guy out there. He may also have a touch of mischief. He told Clifton Brown of the New York Times, “We hold dear our tradition and our constitutional right to choose.” Constitutional right to choose? Doesn’t Johnson know that those words are to apply only to abortion? He insists that “single-gender organizations are good, and part of the fabric of America”–are you gonna go after the Girl Scouts and their cookies, too? He’s a little like George W. Bush (again) in that he favors the monosyllabic answer: “Is there any chance that you and Martha Burk will meet face to face?” “No.”

As for the other Hootie, Martha Burk (Ph.D., Chair), she’s obviously having a ball. Her Warhol-allotted 15 minutes has extended to several months now. The media adore her. She poses for mags in green jackets (get it?). She’s getting ready for big protests at the Masters come April. There has been talk of women in “green burqas.” Jesse Jackson has promised to show up and help yell. Burk has launched a website called AugustaDiscriminates.org, which features a “Hall of Hypocrisy,” meant to shame members who are corporate CEOs, with their “contempt for women” (no less).

Dr. Burk knows that there will be women members at Augusta one day. Johnson and his brethren pretty much know it too. It’s just that they hate the idea that this eventuality will be interpreted as a correction of a moral failing. And they know that much of the heat on Augusta comes from sheer envy and resentment–and from too much time on certain hands, with too much real civil-rights work already accomplished.

Bobby Jones’s club is, in its way, a “little platoon”–a little Burkean (although not Martha Burkean) brigade–and it is even a “point of light,” seeing as it has given away $15 million in charity over the last five years. Martha Burk and the New York Times fancy that they’re draggin’ ol’ Hootie into the 21st century, or the 20th, or the 19th, or whatever. Johnson acknowledges that, “in many ways, [Augusta] may be timeless. But there’s nothing wrong with that.”

He has a point.


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