Given the news spin cycle, is it any wonder that the presidency has been reduced to a talk show, or that March Madness has better ratings than the wars in the Middle East? But American presidents might think about adopting a SportsCenter model — snappy replays, contrite Tigers — and drop Rush Limbaugh and James Carville as their founding fathers. The continental divide in American history isn’t that between Democrats and Republicans, or conservatives and liberals, but whether or not the president should be a good sport.
I realize that embracing a president by his or her ability to play sports, or least talk about them, would saddle the country with leaders like Derek Jeter, Scottie Pippin, or Peyton Manning. But my take on the run of political leaders since Teddy Roosevelt cluttered up the White House with big game trophies is that modern presidents have had a complicated relationship with the national pastimes. Maybe it was the German strategist Clausewitz who said that sports is the extension of politics by other means?
To be sure, presidents up to and including Barack Obama have played sports, and many have played their games well. I have no doubt that Bill Clinton shoots a reasonable, if erratic game of golf, or that former Yale baseball player George Herbert Walker Bush throws competitive horseshoes. But how many presidents would you have wanted in your fantasy league, and how many (think Richard Nixon) picked up the clubs only when a few photographers were in the rough?
To see if there is a correlation between good presidents and good sportsmen, let’s sort out the players from the duffers. Those who could play the games: Teddy Roosevelt (rod and gun), Franklin Roosevelt (excellent at golf before polio, and sailing afterwards), Jack Kennedy (golf, girls, and touch football, although not in that order), Gerald Ford (football in college, tennis in the White House, the Pro-Am circuit in retirement), and the George Bushes (speed golf, cigarette boats).
On the bench, so to speak, place: William Howard Taft (of sumo proportions), Woodrow Wilson (hard to imagine him playing much pond hockey, although he did ride horses), Warren Harding (are cards considered a sport?), Calvin Coolidge (“harrumph”), Herbert Hoover (a fan of the medicine ball), Harry Truman (although he was brisk walker), Lyndon Johnson (beagle handling does not count), Richard Nixon (despite the bowling poster in “The Big Lebowski”and installing lanes in the White House), Ronald Reagan (lifeguarding, horseback riding, the original Brush Clearer), and Jimmy Carter (knocked silly by a killer rabbit).
I have my doubts about Dwight Eisenhower, who played 800 rounds of golf as president but still only had an 18 handicap, and Barack Obama, who despite his pick-up basketball and vacation golf has the shadow of a 37 (in bowling) hanging over his presidency. (Kids without barriers usually score better than 37. If the Birthers want proof of alien associations, they should look into this.)
Sports and politics came together harmoniously with Franklin Roosevelt, who could never walk after his 1921 bout with polio. When he ran for the presidency in 1932, however, he began his campaign with a long sailing trip in the waters off New England, and the image of Roosevelt at the helm quelled whatever fears there might have been about his incapacity. Roosevelt was, in fact, an excellent sailor.
Likewise, Jack Kennedy used sports to cover up a chronically bad back, Addison’s Disease, and a host of other ailments that had him under constant medical care. Instead of a bed-ridden presidential candidate, the public saw a “vigorous” man playing touch football on the lawn at Hyannis Port or heading out in a sailboat. In retrospect, the images of a robust president were as manufactured as those of Family Man Kennedy.
The ability to talk about sports might add more to presidential success than the ability to play the games. Sports talk is one of the few common languages for much of the United States. Without any ability to speak it, a candidate on the campaign trail would find himself with a lot awkward pauses in the company of local politicos.
The former radio sportscaster Ronald “Dutch” Reagan could obviously talk a good game. For much of his broadcasting career, all he had were the wire service reports of the action, and he would have to conjure the play-by-play, much as he later was attracted to invented economic theories (the Laffer Curve) or history (“I did not trade arms for hostages”). Few had the Gipper’s gift of small talk, and a lot of it revolved around sports.
By this logic, President Obama ought to be one of the more successful American presidents. He occasionally joins the broadcast at half-time in key college basketball games, he picked the NCAA champion in his 2009 bracket, and he seems to enjoy golf. Why, then, are his approval ratings on a par with presidents who never hit a three-pointer?
Part of the explanation can be gleaned in one of the many health care posts I have read recently. The correspondent was despairing of the President’s ability to convince the American people that health care reform was actually good for them, which prompted a digression into Obama’s wounded-duck throw with last year’s All-Star ceremonial pitch (apparently George W. Bush threw high heat) and, of course, the 37. Meaning: he’s losing the sports-bar, call-in radio constituency, which, when it comes to medicine, is only interested in steroids.
By my logic, Bill Clinton got impeached not for groping an intern but for boasting he had broken 80 in a golf game. (In the words of Jack Nicklaus: “Eighty with fifty floating mulligans.”) Nor did Gerald Ford’s presidency ever recover from his erratic tee shots. Doubts surfaced about W not so much over Iraq as when it was reported that he had watched the Super Bowl by himself.
The hope for the Obama presidency is that it will return to his sporting roots. On the campaign trail, he watched a lot of ESPN, and he is a long-time White Sox fan, perhaps even from the days of their Disco Demolition Night. After all, the athletically-challenged Nixon won four national elections on the strength of owning his own bowling ball (but was he a “sandbagger”?) and calling in a few plays to the Washington Redskins coach, George Allen (which, by the way, never worked.) Clearly, Obama has affection for his basketball, and my guess is that he spends more time than a president should thinking about the NBA draft. All are hopeful signs for his time in office.
Matthew Stevenson is the editor, along with Michael Martin, of The Rules of the Game: The Best Sports Writing from Harper's Magazine, published by Franklin Square Press, and the recently published Remembering the Twentieth Century Limited. He lives in Europe.