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Trump is not a good sport: Chris Cillizza on the presidents in play | Books

Trump is not a good sport: Chris Cillizza on the presidents in play |  Books


From The Big Lebowski to Alice on The Brady Bunch, depictions of bowling abound in American pop culture. Real-life fans of the sport included Richard Nixon, who set up bowling alleys at the White House and was known to play between seven and 12 games late at night. Characteristically, he played alone. It’s one of many sports stories from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in a new book, Power Players: Sports, Politics, and the American President, by longtime political journalist Chris Cillizza.

The bowling solo personified Nixon the loner, Cillizza says. He did not play tennis or golf with friends. He liked to bowl by himself. It is a powerful image, a revealing image.

Tricky Dicks’ love of bowling also contributed to a crucial electoral bloc: Nixon saw it as the sport of the white and blue-collar men of the Silent Majority who were somewhat of his base. He was very aware of this.

A reporter in Washington for four decades, most recently for CNN, Cillizza presented the book on the game, love, spectatorship of sports presidents and what it tells us about who they are and how they govern. It was the germ of the idea, the seed.

Power Players investigates 13 modern-day presidents, from Dwight Eisenhower to Joe Biden. Some of his stories are well known, such as Ike’s intensive golf games, John F Kennedy’s touch football games or Barack Obama’s basketball during the election campaign. The book explores lesser-known aspects of these stories, including a chilling bonding moment for Eisenhower.

While golfing in Colorado in 1955, he fielded several stressful phone calls from his Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles. After eating a hamburger with onions and receiving another call from Dulles, Ike felt too angry to continue playing. Chest pains followed that night. The White House initially claimed indigestion but an EKG revealed something more serious than a heart attack. At the time, there was no 25th Amendment specifying the chain of command in the event of a president’s incapacitation. Luckily, Ike never passed out during the episode.

Golf was a popular sport for many presidents, as evidenced by an earlier book on White House athletics, First Off the Tee by Don Van Natta Jr, whom Cillizza interviewed. Yet the list of presidential hobbies is long and varied, from Nixon’s bowling to Jimmy Carter’s fly-fishing to George HW Bush’s horseshoes. Yes, horseshoes. In addition to Bush’s well-known prowess on the Yale University baseball team, he was a very good horseshoe player who established his own league at the White House, complete with commissioner and tournaments. Permanent White House staff sent teams; Queen Elizabeth II even presented Bush with a quartet of silver horseshoes.

In the discussion of the greatest presidential athletes, Cillizza lands in the corner of Gerald Fords.

No debate, he’s the best athlete ever, I think, with [George HW] Bush far behind among modern presidents.

Ford has sometimes lived up to the goofy stereotypes made famous by Chevy Chase and Bob Hope, including when he accidentally hit people with golf balls. Still, he was an All-American center for the national champion football team at the University of Michigan and received contract offers from two NFL teams, the Detroit Lions and the Green Bay Packers.

In addition to the sports presidents game, Cillizza’s book examines how presidents use sports to connect with the public.

Calling sports a common language that many, many, many Americans speak, Cillizza says: I think politicians always try to identify with the average person. I think sport is a way into this world for a lot of presidents.

There’s the practice of inviting championship teams to the White House, which Cillizza traces to Ronald Reagan, though the cases date back decades. Although not a huge sports fan, Reagan came from a sports radio background, played the legendary Gipper in the Knute Rockne movie, All American and understood the importance of closeness to winners, says Cillizza .

Richard Nixon indulges in a favorite pastime. Photography: Bettmann Archive

There’s also the tradition of presidential first pitches at baseball games, arguably the most iconic thrown by George W Bush at Yankee Stadium in the 2001 World Series, following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Cillizza notes Dubya’s baseball pedigree as president of the Texas Rangers and that he would have considered becoming commissioner of Major League Baseball.

Of the presidents surveyed, Cillizza said George HW Bush had the most sportsmanship, thanks to early lessons in fair play from his mother, Dorothy Walker Bush, an excellent tennis player herself. The least athletic, according to the author? Lyndon Johnson and Donald Trump. Cillizza cites an account of Trump’s time on the Fordham University squash team. After a loss to the Naval Academy, he went to a department store and bought some golf equipment. He and his teammates vented their frustration by hitting golf balls off a cliff in the Chesapeake Bay and then walked away, without clubs.

It’s Trump, in many ways, says Cillizza. It is not a good sportsman who will be distinguished.

The author notes similar behavior throughout Trump’s career, including explosive performances in World Wrestling Entertainment storylines and an entire recent book about his alleged golf cheating, as well as a recent article about the former president traveling to Ireland to visit one of his courses.

He hit a drive and said Joe Biden could never do that, Cillizza recalled. He went 280 feet down the middle of the fairway. He talks about his virility, his health, through the prism of sport.

Not so long ago, two ex-presidents of rival parties teamed up in a golf quartet. George HW Bush joined the man who beat him in 1992 Bill Clinton on his way to an unlikely friendship. Rounding out the foursome were broadcast legend Jim Nantz and NFL superstar Tom Brady.

It’s remarkable what sport can do to bring presidents together, says Cillizza. It’s hard to imagine these days that I don’t think Donald Trump and Joe Biden will be playing golf together anytime soon.




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