University City

The NASCAR fans who booed First Lady bring shame on us all

Last Sunday, just days before Thanksgiving, a NASCAR crowd near Miami booed First Lady Michelle Obama, who was the guest of honor at the race.

There's nothing in this display of bad taste and worse manners to make Americans thankful or proud.

With our close ties to NASCAR, University City residents and all Charlotteans need to rev up our laptops and phones and drive home the message that this kind of nonsense is steering our nation in exactly the wrong direction.

Granted, the Florida incident is an example of free speech, a great American tradition. Our citizens enjoy certain unalienable rights, among them making fools of themselves by heaping disrespect on a mother and successful working woman because they don't like her husband's politics.

It also happened far away, at a track in south Florida, and thankfully not at the Charlotte Motor Speedway. None of us were in that troupe of baboons (an infomercial for Darwin's theory of evolution if there ever was one), hooting at the wife of our nation's President. So why should Charlotte care?

Unfortunately, the nation and the world see Charlotte as the heart of NASCAR country. NASCAR's mecca, the NASCAR Hall of Fame, is in Charlotte's uptown. In University City, NASCAR's presence is inescapable. Bruton Smith's titanic speedway looms just north of the UNC Charlotte campus, and the university offers a high-tech motorsports program inspired by NASCAR.

Charlotte can't avoid this mess by sitting in neutral or taking alternate routes.

In just a few months, we will welcome the Obamas to Charlotte and the Bidens as well (the vice president's wife, Jill Biden, was also booed in Florida). We need to reassure them that here in Charlotte, NASCAR or not, America's highest elected leaders and their families will be treated with courtesy and respect.

Fortunately, Tar Heels justly take pride in decent manners. We still teach our kids to say "please" and "thank you," "Yes, sir" and "No, ma'am." We frown on calling people names and mocking them in public.

This isn't just a quaint anachronism. Democracy cannot function effectively without a level of mutual respect that transcends our political differences. To be able to work together and find common ground, the United States need to get beyond the booing.

It's especially troubling that the First Lady was the target.

The wife (or husband) of the U.S. president traditionally stands outside politics, in the role of unifier, representing all Americans, regardless of party or persuasion. Michelle Obama has handled this tough assignment with grace, focusing her enormous talents on important nonpolitical issues, such as fighting childhood obesity and encouraging vegetable gardening.

By insulting her, the NASCAR hooligans heap disrespect on all of us. At a time when Americans so desperately need to work together, booing the First Lady was an act of contempt for our democracy and nation more provocative and damaging than burning an American flag.

Beyond the obvious - calling on NASCAR to take responsibility for the incident, repudiate the behavior of its fans and formally apologize to the First Lady and Ms. Biden - there's something else Charlotteans can do.

We've known NASCAR from the beginning, when our granddaddies souped up their old Fords and Chevys, loaded them with moonshine and outran the revenuers on Carolina's dusty back roads. We've watched NASCAR grow up into a phenomenon and have seen its power over local politics.

In University City, we've even named a wide boulevard for Bruton Smith, an honor normally reserved for important historical figures, past mayors and the Rev. Billy Graham.

Given our long experience, the U.S. people need to listen when we remind them that our democracy isn't a NASCAR race.

Going around and around in circles will get us nowhere, no matter how fast we go, how much noise we make or how much nasty hollering goes on in the stands.