Presidents and sports: How does Obama stack up?
The president-elect, an avid basketball player, has a good jump shot. Bill Clinton was creative with his scoring on the golf course. Richard Nixon liked bowling, while Herbert Hoover was a fanatical trout fisherman.
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His holiday vacation in Hawaii included several rounds of golf (the consensus: He’s a duffer) as well as a bit of basketball and the usual Obama gym workouts. The president-elect’s basketball roots include playing on a state championship team during his high school days at Punahou School in Honolulu. It is a foregone conclusion that Mr. Obama will install a basketball court at the White House during his time in office.Skip to next paragraph
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His brother-in-law, Craig Robinson, serves as head basketball coach at Oregon State University. Mr. Robinson famously vetted the future president with a pick-up game, a move prompted by his sister to better ascertain her future husband’s character during their courting days.
Experts debate whether Obama’s hoops-happy regime or the proclivities of his predecessors have much impact on executive decisions, but all agree it offers a bit of personal insight into each president. Dan Lebowitz, executive director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University in Boston, says Obama’s basketball preference embodies an everyman ethos. “It just takes a ball and any kind of hoop to put it through,” he says. “It’s not that you need to pay greens fees or have a caddy or be accepted at a club. There’s a common-man factor.”
In his athletic pursuits, as in political philosophy, Obama differs from the current White House occupant. Like his father, George W. Bush plays golf briskly and rarely broods over decisions. He enjoys mountain biking on rugged terrain and has been known to leave guest riders behind in the creosote bush.
Sports habits can reveal interesting insights into the man behind the power as well. Shortly after author Don Van Natta wrote about Bill Clinton’s penchant for creative scorekeeping on the golf course, the former First Golfer agreed to set the record straight with a day on the links.
The former president vowed to abstain from taking any mulligans, which in Clintonian circles had been rechristened “Billigans.” The 42nd president lived up to his pledge, for one hole. On the second fairway, Mr. Van Natta recalls, Clinton hit a poor shot. After that, his bogey filibusters and scorecard amendments began taking their toll.
“It was like a switch was thrown,” says Van Natta, author of “First Off the Tee: Presidential Hackers, Duffers and Cheaters from Taft to Bush.” “He took three shots off the tee, three shots off the fairway, I saw a no-putt par.” Van Natta cataloged more than 200 shots; Clinton’s scorecard read 82.
Richard Nixon ranks among the most sedentary presidents but proved to be an avid sports fan. He installed a one-lane bowling alley in the White House and nurtured a long-running friendship with Washington Redskins coach George Allen. One afternoon, Nixon arrived by helicopter at Redskin Park, the team’s practice facility, and even called a play – a reverse to a wide receiver.
During a playoff loss later that season, a failed reverse stalled a crucial Redskins drive. Critics, naturally, blamed Nixon for calling the play. In subsequent years, apocryphal tales of Nixon meddling in Redskins’ huddles became prevalent, a notion debunked by Allen’s daughter seven years ago in an ESPN.com column. Perhaps the real answer to the playoff riddle could have been found in the 18 1/2-minute gap on Nixon’s White House tapes.
Now that would be an instant replay for the ages.