Our Sporting Presidents

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Are there any Presidents who brought distinguished professional sports credentials to the White House? Not quite yet. It is only recently that fame on the playing field has led directly to high-level political office. Perhaps Sen. Bill Bradley (New York Knicks basketball) or Housing and Urban Development Secretary Jack Kemp (Buffalo Bills football) will someday become President, but in the meantime, the winner of a contest for pre-presidential athletic laurels would most likely be Gerald Ford. He was center on the University of Michigan’s 1932 to 1934 teams, not quite an ail-American but good enough to be chosen the Wolverines’ Most Valuable Player in 1934 and to play on the College All-Star team the next year. George Bush might contend for runner-up collegiate honors. He was a good-field, fair-hit (.280) second baseman on a Yale team that went to the College World Series in 1948 and lost to the University of Southern California.

It is in his personal exercise during office, however, that a President is most representative of us all—or rather, of his own era and upbringing. An intriguing volume edited by Joseph Nathan Kane, called Facts about the Presidents , contains a list of Presidents’ sports and hobbies that gives a capsule view of how differently, over time, these successful, busy American males in mid-life have restored their spirits and bodies.

One must start with George Washington. His favorite outdoor pastime was horseback riding, not unnatural in a Virginia fox hunter and much easier to do in the environs of New York and Philadelphia in the 179Os. Modern Presidents, Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan, for example, also have ridden but usually at home while on vacation. Fishing enticed the contemplative Jefferson (but also such unphilosophical Presidents as Chester A. Arthur, Herbert Hoover, and Dwight Eisenhower). John Quincy Adams, inaugurated in 1825, enjoyed swimming in the Potomac. Swimming persists as a popular presidential exercise, and the contemporary White House has a pool that John Quincy might have envied. Adams’s fellow Harvard graduate John F. Kennedy made frequent use of it (and swam for the Crimson as an undergraduate), but the best-known presidential swimmer was Franklin D. Roosevelt. The exercise was restorative therapy for his paralyzed legs.

William Howard Taft, a man of judicial temper and elephantine size, turns out to have been a first-rate baseball player and lifelone fan.

Middle-class America as a whole began to take time off for organized play only after the Civil War, and so did their elected chieftains. Rutherford B. Hayes (1877-81) is recorded as having liked to play croquet, which is rather a borderline “sport.” It took the twentieth century to introduce golf to the White House, but it caught on very well despite an original flavor of country-clubbiness. Taft played, and so did Wilson. He called it a game in which an elusive ball was knocked into an impossible hole with instruments ill adapted to the purpose. Harding, Coolidge, Elsenhower, Kennedy, Nixon, and Ford all golfed, though it is hard to imagine the unrelaxed Nixon having much fun at it, or anything else for that matter.

The other elite-at-the-beginning sport that found its way to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue was tennis. Theodore Roosevelt played with a circle of intimates who were dubbed “the tennis cabinet.” In recent times so did Jimmy Carter, and so does Bush. Another upper-crust pastime (slightly democratized in contemporary times) is sailing, which requires access to a shoreline and a healthy wallet. Franklin Roosevelt and Kennedy, who qualified on both counts, did a good deal of it. Jimmy Carter contented himself with the modest canoe. Nothing prevents a rich President from playing like one of the boys, and Bush sometimes tosses a plebeian horseshoe. But Harry Truman was the truest democrat of all. His sport was a brisk walk.

Within the last couple of decades, Presidents have been caught up in the intensified public concern about their health. Ford and Carter were runners, as is Bush, and Reagan pumped iron. But individual workouts go back at least sixty or seventy years. Does anyone know that Calvin Coolidge swung Indian clubs and that Hoover tossed a medicine ball? Does anyone know, in this age of high-tech exercise machines, what Indian clubs or medicine balls are ?

What larger message lurks in these nuggets I am not sure, unless they add up to a warning. In the current inexorable search for the ideal presidential character, could a sports peccadillo be the subject of an attack commercial? Could a party safely nominate an overweight and unabashed couch potato who scorned exercise? Would the tabloids be ready to pounce on a front-runner with the discovery that he once moved his golf ball to a better lie when he thought no one was looking? I think caution is definitely in order for the ambitious.