Just as the Battle of Gettysburg was about far more than who would control the tiny Pennsylvania town, so the Battle of Augusta National Golf Club is taking on an importance far beyond the issue of whether the famed Georgia club admits women as members.
The New York Times and liberal-activist editor Howell Raines have decided to make Augusta a crusade in the culture war. Raines has thrown off all pretense of objectivity -- using not only his editorial page, but his front page, his news pages and his sports pages to break Augusta and club chairman "Hootie" Johnson.
Since July, when Martha Burk, chair of the National Council of Women's Organizations, sent a letter demanding that Augusta admit women -- and Hootie penned his defiant reply -- the Times has devoted over 30 articles to the controversy. It cannot let go.
Editorials have called on Tiger Woods to boycott the Master's and on club members to resign. When Pulitzer Prize-winning sports columnist Dave Anderson wrote to urge Tiger to go ahead and play -- as Augusta's fight is not his fight -- Anderson's column was spiked by senior editors. Another column by sports writer Harvey Araton, dissenting from the party line, was also spiked.
Now, there are reports of a rebellion among Times' staffers who believe that Raines, a Southern liberal frozen in a '60s mindset, is fast converting the paper into a battering ram of the Left. They see the Times as being prostituted to Raines' ideology, and made an object of mockery and ridicule to radio talk, ruining its reputation.
In truth, the Times is not covering Augusta. The Times is pumping the story, propelling the story, advancing the story, expanding the story, refusing to let it die. After Hootie wrote Burk that he would not submit, and let his advertisers go when Burk sought to pressure them, the story was done. There was no more news. Columnists and editorial writers all across America moved on. But the Times refused to move on.
It has made a conscious decision to keep hammering at Hootie and Augusta until they break, because Hootie Johnson must not be allowed to defy Howell Raines. In politics, when one takes a controversial stand -- a liberal opposing the death penalty, or a conservative opposing abortion in all cases -- the opposition will hammer a candidate to force him to break or pay a price in popular support. But that is politics. Not journalism.
Raines wants to be able to say, "I broke Augusta." And for the editorial page to crusade against Augusta every single day is legitimate. But to prostitute the news column crosses the line, and to start spiking all dissenters tells you what this is all about. And it isn't news. The Times is leading an ideological campaign, and all the Times journalists must enlist -- or shut up. To get his coonskin on the wall, Raines has turned his paper into a propaganda arm of the feminists and the Left. He is the Jesse Jackson of American Journalism.
Thus far, Tiger Woods is still committed to play in the Master's, and golf legends Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus are holding firm as club members. However, the Times' assaults have stampeded one member of Augusta. Thomas Wyman, ex-chair of CBS, has resigned from the club and denounced fellow members as "rednecks" and Hootie as "pigheaded." Wyman was rewarded with page-one coverage by the Times. But unexplained was how our progressive paragon could have belonged to a pigheaded, redneck institution for 25 years without being a hypocrite and a phony.
No other member has yet cut and run under the Times' fire, but one -- Sandy Weill, chair of Citigroup -- has publicly declared himself in favor of admitting women. My advice to Augusta: Wait until the last day of the Master's, then kick Weill out of the club.
Now that the Times and its agenda have become a public issue, the Battle of Augusta is going to get far greater attention. For it is no longer about whether Augusta brings in women. Members' wives have long used the club facilities. The Ladies Professional Golf Association has been invited to play.
The issue is whether Americans are going to remain free to decide with whom they associate, or whether The New York Times will decide what is and is not a moral institution, according to standards laid down by Howell Raines and enforced by attack ads disguised as news.
The Battle of Augusta is a Grenada of the Culture War -- a tiny battle with large implications. The goods guys have to win.