Saturday, October 18, 2008

Golf and the American Presidency

Not long after he turned over the Oval Office in 1909 to his friend and hand-picked successor, Teddy Roosevelt wrote a letter to President William Howard Taft, urging him to discontinue his rounds of golf at Chevy Chase Country Club. Photos of America's leader spending afternoons on the links, former President Roosevelt warned, sent the wrong message to the public, especially in the wake of the Panic of 1907, when the government intervened to rescue the banking system.President Taft, a lifelong golfer who, to put it mildly, needed the exercise, told Teddy to mind his own damn business. Angrier words were exchanged, spilling over into issues of policy. Three years later, still gnashing his teeth at Taft's betrayal, former President Roosevelt threw his hat into the presidential ring as a last-minute third-party candidate. The Republican vote, effectively split, resulted in the election of an obscure governor from New Jersey, Woodrow Wilson President Taft continued to play golf throughout his life, helping to legitimize the sport, although it remained within its firmly etched class lines. (Teddy stuck to tennis.) Forty years later, President Eisenhower's unapologetic embrace of the game dissolved many of its elitist associations and golf completed its journey to middle-class respectability.Presidents have played the game ever since with varying degrees of skill and obsession, but without fear of backlash or rebuke. Until May of this year, when President George W. Bush -- whose family ties to the patrician roots of American golf reach back three generations -- announced that he was giving up the game. Photos of the commander in chief on a golf course while our armed forces remain at war overseas, he had determined, were good for neither morale nor image. A few months later, that president's image appears beyond repair, and the country, indeed the world, faces a crisis of grave portent and vast uncertainty; May 2008 suddenly seems like the good old days. (from the Wall Street Journal)

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