When is a presidential golf game just a golf game, and when is it something more?
For journalists who study Bill Clinton's movements like kids do an ant farm, the president's solo round on the links last week was nothing less than a metaphor for his presidency - and an opportunity for amateur psychoanalysts everywhere.
Playing alone in a steady drizzle and finishing up the 18th hole in the dark, Mr. Clinton looked, to journalistic observers, to be a melancholy chief executive in his sunset year, abandoned by a campaigning wife and vice president, left to contemplate his legacy in solitude.
"Is the president getting wiggy in the final days?" wondered syndicated columnist Maureen Dowd. "Will he start talking to the portraits in the White House?"
Oh, good grief. "Silly" is how deputy White House spokesman Jake Siewert characterizes that kind of analysis. From a player's point of view, he says, "any day playing golf is better than a day at work."
But what about the president's choice of golf partners? Is it too far-fetched to find any political meaning there?
Hm-m-m. Last Sunday, a crisp day when gold and orange just kissed the tree tops, Clinton and three fellow golfers set out for the Army Navy Country Club across the Potomac, in northern Virginia.
One was presidential buddy and Democratic fund-raiser Terence McAuliffe. The other two, said a White House official who supplied the names, were simply "friends" of the president.
As it turns out, one was New Yorker Thomas Golisano, who'd spoken on the phone with Clinton but who'd never before met him. Mr. Golisano is the head of New York's Independence Fusion Party, a small but influential party whose endorsement the president would very much like to win for his wife's possible Senate bid. A businessman from Rochester, N.Y., Golisano has twice run for governor and has strength upstate, where Mrs. Clinton needs buttressing.
In New York, the names of mainstream candidates can appear not only on their party's ballot line, but also on the line of any other party that might endorse them.
"It's really essential that Hillary has an additional line on the ballot," says New York-based pollster John Zogby, adding that the Working Families Party is likely to endorse her. "When I see Hillary Rodham Clinton, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Hillary Rodham Clinton on the ballot, it has an impact," he says.
In a phone interview, Golisano said that's exactly the point the president made - not on the wind-whipped golf course, but aprs sport, when the two settled down at the White House to talk politics.
Golisano says Clinton never asked flat out for the endorsement, although he mentioned that it is important for Mrs. Clinton to have "more than one line" on the ballot. The New Yorker, in return, mused that it had certainly helped Democrat Charles Schumer, who won a tight US Senate race against Alfonse D'Amato last year.
That's as far as that discussion went, and Golisano says it's still too early to endorse.
So, what did Golisano and Clinton actually talk about out on the green?
"You talk about the good swings, the bad swings. You talk about how to sink puts. You talk about alignment so you don't hit the ball out of play. ... You talk about what you had for dinner last night."
Sometimes, a presidential round of golf is, in the end, just a round of golf.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society