FFrom The Big Lebowski to Alice on The Brady Bunch, depictions of bowling abound in American pop culture. Real life supporters of the sport included richard nixon, who installed bowling alleys at the White House and was known for playing between seven and 12 games late at night. Characteristically, he played alone. This is one of many athletic accounts of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in a new book, Power Players: Sports, Politics, and the American Presidency, by veteran political journalist Chris Cillizza.

The bowling solo epitomized “Lonely Nixon,” says Cillizza. “He didn’t play tennis or golf with friends. He liked to bowl alone. He is a powerful image, a revealing image.”

Tricky Dick’s love of bowling also helped with a crucial voting bloc: “Nixon saw it as the sport of the Silent Majority: blue-collar white men who were part of his base. He was well aware of this.”

A Washington journalist for four decades, most recently for CNN, Cillizza presented the book on “sports presidents play, love, watch and what it tells us about who they are and how they rule. That was the germ of the idea, the seed that entered”.

Power Players polls 13 modern-era presidents, from Dwight Eisenhower to Joe Biden. Some of their narratives are well known: think Ike’s sprawling golf game, John F. Kennedy’s football games, or Barack Obama’s impromptu basketball on the campaign trail. The book explores the lesser-remembered sides of these stories, including a terrifying moment in the Eisenhower liaisons.

While golfing in Colorado in 1955, he received multiple stressful phone calls from his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles. After eating an onion burger and receiving another call from Dulles, Ike was too angry to play any further. His chest pains continued that night. The White House initially claimed indigestion, but an EKG found something more serious: a heart attack. At the time, there was no 25th amendment specifying the chain of command if a president was incapacitated. Fortunately, Ike never lost consciousness during the episode.

Golf was a popular sport for many presidents, as reflected in an earlier book on White House athletics, First Off the Tee by Don Van Natta Jr, whom Cillizza interviewed. Yet the list of presidential pastimes is long and diverse, 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 good horseshoes player who established his own league at the White House, with a commissioner and tournaments. The permanent White House staff sent teams; Queen Elizabeth II even presented Bush with a quartet of silver horseshoes.

In the discussion of the best presidential athlete, Cillizza lands in Gerald Ford’s corner.

“There is no debate, he is the best athlete of all time, I think, with [George HW] Bush a distant second among modern presidents.”

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

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

Calling sports “a common language that is spoken by many, many, many Americans,” Cillizza says, “I think politicians are always trying to identify with the average person… I think sports is a way into that world for many presidents.

There is a practice of inviting championship teams to the White House, which Cillizza attributes to ronald reaganalthough the cases date back decades. Though not a huge sports fan, Reagan came from sports radio, played the legendary Gipper in the movie Knute Rockne, All American, and understood the importance of proximity to winners, Cillizza says.

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

There is also a tradition of presidential first pitches at baseball games, possibly the most iconic being thrown by George W. Bush at Yankee Stadium during the 2001 World Series, following the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Cillizza points to Dubya’s baseball pedigree as president of the Texas Rangers and that he reportedly contemplated becoming commissioner of Major League Baseball.

Of the presidents surveyed, Cillizza says George HW Bush had the greatest sportsmanship, thanks to early lessons in fair play from his mother, Dorothy Walker Bush, a great tennis player. The least sporty, 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 drove to a department store and bought golf equipment. He and his teammates took out their frustration by hitting golf balls off a cliff into the Chesapeake Bay, then walked away, clubless.

“That’s Trump, in a lot of ways,” Cillizza says. “It is not a good sportsman who is going to be gentle.”

The author notes similar behavior throughout Trump’s career, including bombastic performances on World Wrestling Entertainment stories and a whole recent book about his alleged cheating in golf, as well as recent news about the former president’s trip to Ireland to visit one of his courses.

“He hit a drive and said Joe Biden could never do this,” recalls Cillizza. “It was 280 feet right in the middle of the street. He talks about his manhood, his health, through the lens of sport.”

Not too long ago, two former presidents of rival parties teamed up as part of a golf foursome. George HW Bush joined the man who defeated him in 1992 – Bill Clinton – on the way to an unlikely friendship. Rounding out the foursome were broadcasting legend Jim Nantz and NFL superstar Tom Brady.

“It’s remarkable what sports can do to unite presidents,” says Cillizza. “Today, it’s hard to consider… I don’t think Donald Trump and Joe Biden are going to be golfing together anytime soon.”


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