by Chris Foss
Two weeks ago, I argued in my previous article on the connection between politicians and sports. President Richard Nixon’s love for sports went far beyond the Presidential tradition of throwing out the first pitch at Washington Senators (later, Nationals) baseball games, or hosting championship teams in the East Room of the White House. Those events are mere photo-ops, and sometimes goofy ones at that—witness President George W. Bush trying to dribble a basketball during the Miami Heat’s visit in 2006. Poor Bush—like Nixon, and like most of us, the 43rd President was better admiring sports from the sidelines than at actually giving them a try, as seen on a trip to Belfast, Northern Ireland during his waning months in office. Barack Obama and even the fictional Jed Bartlett on The West Wing have proven to be far superior ballers.
Fandom isn’t the only link connecting athletes and politicians, however; many have been able to walk the walk and talk the sporting talk. Abraham Lincoln, for example, was notorious not just for the athletic log-splitting feats of his youth, but also for taking on any comer in impromptu wrestling bouts, particularly while he lived in New Salem, Illinois in the early 1830s. A sickly young Theodore Roosevelt had a gym constructed for him at a young age, within which he became a self-taught pugilist. When as a young reform-minded politician he was threatened on the floor of the New York State Assembly by a corrupt Tammany Hall rival known as “The McManus,” TR is reputed to have told him, “I’ll kick you, I’ll bite you, I’ll kick you in the balls. I’ll do anything to you—you’d better leave me alone.” The McManus, wisely seeing that TR meant business, backed down.
Gerald Ford (he of the famous quote “I’m a Ford, not a Lincoln”) was probably the best athlete who ever made it to the White House, however. He starred for the University of Michigan as a center, long snapper, and linebacker, and is the only future U.S. President ever known to have tackled a Heisman Trophy winner. Ford was later relentlessly lampooned for such un-athletic feats as falling down a flight of stairs off Air Force One while arriving for a state visit with the Austrian premier. This belied his long athletic history, however, not just as a football player, but as an avid skier and golfer.
Ultimately, as you might think, the golf course is where most presidents have shown their athletic prowess. Bush was relentlessly lampooned by his critics for lashing out against terrorists, then, in the same breath, imploring the press “now watch this drive”; later, he was ripped when his golf game seemed to overshadow Hurricane Katrina on his priority list. But Democrats have also seen golf backfire in their political lives—witness Obama’s fruitless games with then-GOP Speaker of the House John Boehner in 2011 while trying to reach a deal to end the budget standoff between Democrats and Republicans that continues to plague the country to date. But golf has been a high priority for Presidents nonetheless, dating back at least to the 1950s, when President Eisenhower installed a putting green at the White House.
Incidentally, during racial rioting which tore through Detroit in the summer of 1967, President Lyndon Johnson used the putting green to make an awkward apology to a black aide. The president had just told his aides that he didn’t want troops sent in to put down the rioting to accidentally shoot and kill any blacks, except he used more colorful language befitting his Southern heritage to describe the riot victims (use your imagination). Realizing, to his horror, that one of his aides was African American, LBJ finished the meeting, then took the aide, Roger Wilkins, outside to the putting green. Wilkins recalled that Johnson awkwardly stood around for a time before telling him, “Look at what that sonuvabitch (Eisenhower) did to my lawn!” Wilkins later believed that this was Johnson’s way of apologizing to him. In a very small way, sports helped heal a racial divide that day, at least at the White House.
We’ve had Presidents and Congressmen that have been equal parts politician, athlete, and fan. Senator Ron Wyden, former chair of the Senate Finance Committee and the longest-serving member of the Oregon congressional delegation, was a basketball star at Palo Alto High School and University of California-Santa Barbara. Washington Congressman Joel Pritchard went a step further and, with friends, invented his own sport, Pickleball. Washington Senator Henry Jackson was famous for his long bike rides and workouts, after which, he argued, he took the hottest steam of any Senator, at a piping 160 degrees Fahrenheit. Early ’90s-era Speaker of the House Tom Foley trimmed his weight from 300 pounds to 220 in three years with a killer workout that impressed even the political muckrakers at Mother Jones.
The point is that sports and politics are not exclusive spheres: they have intersected in interesting and fun ways that ultimately help to show the humanity of the men and women who, for better or worse, run the United States. Since 1909, Congress, despite its increasing partisan workdays, has engaged in annual summer baseball games for charity. While basketball players tend to lean left, and football players and NASCAR drivers generally lean right, perhaps sports provides a field upon which it is possible to start to heal the partisan scars of recent years and get back to decent government at the federal level. Athletes and coaches in recent years have gotten into a lot of hot water when they have mixed politics and sports, but what if the politicians reached out to the players—and the fans—as a constituency? If this website has tried to prove anything, it’s that fans and players are not just dumb jocks, reactionaries, or both. Like Honest Abe trying an arm-bar (imagine that!), maybe we need to mix it up a little bit in the political arena.
 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fbypBFwJpW4. “Airball!” he says at one point. Another of his shots caromed badly off the side of the backboard.
 See Part Four of American Experience: LBJ, http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/lbj/