President Bush Comes Out to Play

Whether at tennis or tiddlywinks, `Mr. Smooth' is a fierce competitor - a letter from Washington

AS spring washes in and out like a warm Washington tide, the nation's First Gamesman - the one who doesn't like broccoli - is coming out to play. Not since the Kennedy clan frolicked through the White House, and probably not even then, has an American president been such an enthusiastic and tireless sport as George Bush.

His zeal is wide-ranging, from the country-club staples of golf and tennis to the good-old-boy traditions of fishing and horseshoes to such previously unrecorded presidential pastimes as Wally Ball and tiddlywinks.

Yes, President Bush plays tiddlywinks.

A famously good sport who is intensely competitive, Mr. Bush likes nothing so much as getting the family together for a good, close game.

A recent weekend guest at Camp David, author George Plimpton, put it this way: ``It was like being invited to a country estate by a very rambunctious, amusing family.''

Check the schedule of this first truly fair-weather weekend:

Tennis. The president paired up with 13-year-old Taylor Plimpton against George Plimpton (Taylor's father) and an accomplished woman tennis player. President loses.

Skeet shooting. President wins, 18 skeets to 7 over Mr. Plimpton.

Horseshoes. Plimpton beat Mr. Bush a year ago at his favorite game, a rare feat. Not to be repeated. President wins.

Wally Ball. In this off-the-walls version of volleyball played in a racquetball court, president wins against a team including three of his sons.

Jogging. Bush jogs before his guests arrive in a rare break from competition.

Tiddlywinks. Small plastic disks are snapped into a cup in a game that is a Bush family tradition.

Pegity. The president took on Taylor Plimpton in an old board game.

Sports offer an intriguing window on the character of a president who regularly rises to his strongest political performances when he is under pressure and falling behind.

``He's hugely competitive,'' says Plimpton. ``He loves to win.''

Plimpton, a Democrat who played touch football with the Kennedys in Hyannisport, Mass., found the unpretentious vigor of the Bush family ``startling and very refreshing.''

When the president's brother brought out the bag of winks for a round of tiddlywinks, for example, Plimpton assumed that the child's game would be beneath the presidential dignity.

Not a chance. Lunch was postponed instead.

The president's mother has reputedly been the family champion at the game.

Bush is widely regarded as a good sport. His competitive demeanor is not grim. He has never been put down in the public prints as a sore loser. His joke-language is becoming familiar.

When ``Mr. Smooth'' calls for a power serve on the tennis court, his warning hearkens an old China policy option: ``Unleash Chiang'' - as in Chinese nationalist leader Chiang Kai Shek.

If the president likes stiff competition, he certainly gets it. Next Wednesday, Bush is scheduled to play with Ivan Lendl, John McEnroe, and Andre Agassi.

How good is Bush himself? Plimpton calls him ``a good club player,'' who is aggressive, charges the net often, and plays well there. Bush's pace is also swift in every game he plays. ``He's not impatient,'' says Plimpton. ``He likes the rhythm.''

In a recent interview, a vivid sea of spring green beckoning through the Oval Office windows, Bush described his weekend before a reporter summoned the talk to ``a more serious note.''

``None more important though,'' Bush interjected. ``It's important for the nation to be fit.''

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