Inauguration Day means more than a change in power. It also heralds the arrival of a new First Athlete, not to mention First Fan.
In a sports-obsessed nation filled with baby boomers striving to stave off excess calories, it’s little surprise that the men we’ve sent to the White House often embody those same traits. Presidents routinely joke about their golf handicaps, host star athletes as they celebrate Super Bowl titles and World Series wins, toss out ceremonial first pitches, and revel in the nonpartisan glories of sports.
It all started, as so many things in modern America did, with Theodore Roosevelt. Our 26th president brought a vigorous lifestyle to Washington, including a love of hunting, hiking, boxing, wrestling, and almost anything else represented in the Sweaty Arts.
“Theodore Roosevelt believed we needed to keep physically fit as a nation and made it part of the crusade of his presidency,” says Douglas Brinkley, a historian at Rice University in Houston. “And it’s sort of stuck ever since. It used to be, up until Theodore Roosevelt, that intellectual activity used to be what the general public focused on: what poets did [presidents] know, how many languages did they speak.”
Even in Roosevelt’s day, passion for sports included a mix of genuine love and image-making. Roosevelt loved tennis but believed it “was a game that the American people would perceive as effete,” says biographer Edmund Morris. In that vein, “he was very private about his tennis and didn’t like to be seen or photographed playing tennis.” Nonetheless, he installed the first White House tennis court and his key advisers became known as the tennis cabinet.
Though there are a few exceptions (hello, LBJ), nearly every president of the past century has brought an affinity for some form of exercise or competition to the Oval Office, along with a willingness to while away precious down time taking in games as a fan.
From George H.W. Bush’s speed golfing to JFK’s touch football, presidents have long sought escape in the sports world. By some estimates, FDR spent nearly a quarter of his four-term presidency on the water, pursuing his beloved yachting avocation. Ronald Reagan lifted weights as president and bragged of saving 77 lives as an Illinois lifeguard to his last day.
Some presidents went beyond weekend-warrior status. The elder Bush captained the Yale baseball team as a first baseman, while Gerald Ford’s college football career at the University of Michigan included two national championships and elicited contract offers from two NFL franchises. Ford opted for law school.
Dwight Eisenhower was never the golfer JFK was, but he may have loved the game more than any other president. He later became a member at Augusta National Golf Club, home of the famed Masters tournament.
Now comes Barack Obama, already well documented as an avid basketball player and devoted backer of his hometown Chicago White Sox. During a recent press conference, the president-elect somberly discussed the nation’s economic woes while pausing for an aside on why Florida’s defeat of Oklahoma in the national championship game only whetted his appetite for a playoff system in college football.
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.
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.