03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Barack Obama and Muhammad Ali: Ironies of War and Peace

On November 19th, USA Today published a 64-page special tribute edition in homage to Muhammad Ali, honoring the 50th anniversary of his 1960 Olympic gold medal. Barack Obama wrote a lead essay, in which the President ignored the champ's divisive resistance to military conscription and incendiary unpopularity during the Vietnam War era.

Mr. Obama clearly faced a conundrum when authoring his commentary since he would shortly decide to increase troop strength in Afghanistan, escalating the conflict and irrefutably making the fight his administration's war.

This left me wondering how President Obama could reconcile his adulation for the champ while accepting Ali's widely differing views on war. 

Understanding this complex and sometimes contentious athlete who has risen above the fray, disarming critics and reshaping his legacy, can tell us a lot about a nation struggling with  conflicting values concerning war and peace embodied by a president escalating a war while accepting the Nobel Peace Prize.

To Boomer males and a young Barack Obama, Cassius Clay was Superman. The poetic pugilist was everything a typical male wanted to become: self-confident, physically powerful, intelligent, fearless, wealthy and famous.

He was also a black man, which spoke volumes to teenagers wanting to see the promise of Civil Rights fully manifested with the installation of African American heroes in the mythology of the growing counterculture. He represented the best and brightest of a new generation of trans-racial heroes beginning to emerge in sports, business, cinematic arts and politics.

Muhammad Ali, his adopted Muslim name, was black and belligerent; black and beneficent; black and bold. He quickly became one of the most recognized and admired athletes worldwide; a fact eventually cemented by his installation as the Sportsman of the 20th Century by Sports Illustrated magazine in December 1999.

Born January 17, 1942, Cassius Marcellus Clay won the gold medal in the light heavyweight division of the 1960 Olympic Games in Rome, Italy. He soon captured media attention with his smooth-talking self-confidence and wit. In his own self-assessment: “Cassius Clay is a boxer who can throw the jive better than anybody.”

He helped catapult boxing to the forefront of spectator sporting events when he fought Sonny Liston in Miami for the world heavyweight boxing title. While promoting this match, he coined his famous rhythmic chant, “float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” At the age of 22, he became the pretty prince of boxing.

During this time of rampant racism, and having been inspired by bellicose black activist Malcolm X, he decided to join the Nation of Islam and adopt the name Muhammad Ali, which in Muslim means “beloved of Allah.” Cassius Clay became a Black Muslim in 1963, and he also became a symbol of all that tradition-bound America was beginning to fear: Black Muslims, Black Power and Black Panthers. In doing so, he turned his back on mainstream America by rejecting the “slave name” upon which his early fame rested.

Defying the white establishment, this once powerful symbol of Olympic triumph and The American Dream picked up another burning torch that inspired the downtrodden, disfranchised and dispossessed worldwide. Ali was, as Eldridge Cleaver observed, “the black Fidel Castro of boxing.”

In 1967, he refused the draft on religious grounds, and the World Boxing Federation stripped him of his title and boxing license. The U.S. government charged him for violating the Selective Service Act. He told the media, “I have no quarrel with the Viet-Cong. No Viet-Cong ever called me nigger.”

In spite of his moral and religious objections, the get-Cassius faction across America condemned him as a traitor, and the courts sentenced him to five years in prison. Quickly released on appeal, his conviction was overturned in 1970.

It is not without irony that Muhammad Ali became a favored celebrity pitchman during the early years of this decade, plugging products for America’s mainstream, blue-chip brands.

In Super Bowl XXXVIII, aired on February 1, 2004, for example, Ali appeared as himself in television commercials not once, but three times for IBM, Gillette and as part of a CBS Network promotion to encourage Americans to vote. Around that same time, he also appeared in advertising campaigns for Apple Computer and Coca-Cola. Adidas athletic shoes hired him as spokesman to help solidify its new message in a print, television and Internet advertising campaign dedicated to the theme, “Impossible is nothing.”

David Schwab, director for marketing and media at Octagon, a sports agency owned by the Interpublic Group of Companies, observed that Muhammad Ali could not be thought of as just a celebrity. “He’s an iconic brand. He himself is an IBM or Gillette.”

The IBM campaign was particularly noteworthy for its adoption of the Ali most fondly remembered, while unselfconsciously skirting the potential issues raised by Ali’s civil disobedience and alignment with revolutionary factions during the sixties.

In this television commercial, Ali is sitting next to a boy who is curious about the world. The boy represents IBM’s open source computer operating system called Linux, an “underdog, upstart software technology.” Ali plaintively declares to the boy, “Shake things up,” hearkening back to the time when the great fighter rattled the boxing world while shaking up the Moral Majority’s deeply held beliefs in the duty of all citizens to unflinchingly support their government during times of war.

Icons are eternal, no matter their flaws and foibles.

With a unique combination of skill, style and character, “The Greatest” became a three-time heavyweight champion and the world’s most acclaimed athlete. He became a symbol of conquest. He became the go-to retired athlete for companies revitalizing brand images of courage, character and charisma.

Through the magic of modern branding, he rose again as a powerful symbol of achievement in the face of adversity. Ali's “road less traveled” remains today a mythic Western value that continues to define the American experience.

Ali’s career was, in the end, iconic and ironic. So, it seems, is the career of a president who deeply admires this champ.