Power Players: Sports, Politics, and the American Presidency
By Chris Cillizza
Twelve; hardcover, 336 pages; $30, available today, Tuesday, April 18th
Chris Cillizza has covered Washington politics for four decades, as an editor at large and political analyst at CNN, as a reporter for The Washington Post and The Cook Political Report.
In this wonderful, deeply-researched new book, Power Players, Cillizza examines the relation of United States Presidents to sports since World War II, when sports exploded in popularity and produced some powerful moments.
Nobody can forget when George W. Bush took the mound at Yankee Stadium before the third game of the 2001 World Series just weeks after the September 11 attacks. He wore a bulletproof vest as he took the mound at The Stadium, and he fired a perfect strike, creating a cathartic moment as there was evident worry in the air. Bush was already associated with baseball, as he was an owner of the Texas Rangers before he began his career in politics, so this only deepened his association with America's pastime.
Ronald Reagan was an actor before he got into politics, and one of the most famous roles he played was as George Gipp in the 1940 classic Knute Rockne, All American, so much so that the phrase "Win one for the Gipper" was always associated with him. The interesting thing is that Reagan was not much of a sports fan, but because of that movie, he always would watch Notre Dame football on television.
The one sport that Reagan understood had a power over the American public was baseball, and one of the first events he held at the White House, in March 1981, was when he invited many all-time great baseball players to the White House to be honored. He also formalized championship teams visiting the White House, something that had only been done occasionally before then. In 1987, Reagan invited the Super Bowl Champion New York Giants to the White House. After the ceremony, the players gathered outside before Ronald and his wife, Nancy, headed to Camp David, and, in an ode to linebacker Harry Carson's ritual of dumping Gatorade on Head Coach Bill Parcells after victories, Reagan dumped a bucket of popcorn, his favorite food, on Carson, who returned the favor by doing the same to the President.
It became commonplace during the 2008 primary season to see Barack Obama shooting hoops during the day as a way to find some serenity, and that included playing a pickup game with the North Carolina Tarheels. He would go on to win that state by three points. Obama would often talk of how he would end his night watching SportsCenter, and would talk about his love of the Chicago White Sox.
Then, the power of sports athletes' role in society became very apparent when championship teams refused to go to the White House under Donald J. Trump, with the first one to defy the invitation being the 2017 Golden State Warriors. This ended a tradition that began in 1924 when the Washington Senators visited Calvin Coolidge. This was quite a blow to Trump, who always touted his love of sports, from all the golf courses he built, how he owned the New Jersey Generals in the USFL, and participated in wrestling shows, including a famous match against Vince McMahon. Now, the biggest association with sports Trump has is with the Saudi-backed LIV Golf Tour, which frequently uses his courses for tournaments. The PGA Tour has long since stopped hosting any of their tournaments at Trump-owned properties.
The tradition of championship teams visiting the White House resumed under President Joe Biden, as the 2020 World Champion Los Angeles Dodgers, who won visited in July of 2021. The Milwaukee Bucks, who won the 2020-21 NBA World Championship that same month, came to the White House in November of that year, and they were the first NBA team to do that in five years.
Cillizza fills this book with so many stories about presidents and sports that are not only fascinating, but deepen your understanding of historical events and the times of the country when they served.
The book opens with Dwight Eisenhower's love of golf, and how that reflected American life in the 1950s. That time was marked by the birth of the suburbs, which grew by 47 percent, and the advent of increased leisure time amidst an economic boom. Eisenhower is credited by longtime golf writer Ron Sirak of taking "the game out of the country club and brought it to the people."
Another story about the power of golf is how it deepened the friendship of George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton after they worked together on relief efforts in early 2005 for the massive tsunami that hit southeast Asia at the end of 2004. They grew friendly during that experience, and wanted to get together socially. CBS Sports announcer Jim Nantz, a very close friend of Bush's, served as the "intermediary," as he put it, and they set a date to meet at Bush's Walker's Point Compound in Kennebunkport, Maine in June 2005. The following summer, the trio met again, and they needed a fourth for a round of golf, with Nantz thinking of Tom Brady, who lived in the area. The then-New England Patriots quarterback agreed, and the four of them switched partners every six holes, with Nantz noting that he and Brady beat the two former Presidents easily.
Cillizza writes, in this excerpt, of how sports have defined Presidents: "Since the end of the Second World War - and especially since the advent of television - presidents have leaned more and more on sports to cast a positive image of their presidency and speak to audiences they might not be able to reach any other way.
No one epitomized that notion better than John F. Kennedy. Despite a sickly childhood - and a series of illnesses throughout his presidency - the prevailing image of Kennedy for most Americans was of him and his extended family engaged in games of touch football at their compound in Hyannis Port. That Kennedy was often barely able to walk due to back issues - much less able to fully participate in quasi-tackle football - was glossed over. He was regarded as a hale and hearty presence by the public - thanks in large part to his purposeful close association with sports.
The man Kennedy beat in 1960 - Richard Nixon - was an awkward presence on the football field, effectively used as a tackling dummy during his collegiate years. But the future president was a rabid fan, quoting facts and figures about players and games to anyone who would listen. For the socially challenged Nixon, sports talk was a way to humanize him - and for him to talk to regular joes with whom he felt as though he had little else in common.
If Kennedy was the first modern president to grasp the power of sports to make myths, it was Ronald Reagan who took the mixing of sports and politics to the next level. Reagan was, by all accounts, a decent young athlete - he claimed to have saved seventy-seven people from drowning during his years as a lifeguard. But Reagan's real genius was in his understanding that being next to great athletes - and, as important, winners - was just as good as being one himself. While championship sports teams had, on occasion, visited the White House before Reagan's terms, the Gipper formalized the process - welcoming in winners and flashing the showmanship that made him a successful actor. (After the New York Giants won the Super Bowl in 1987, Reagan allowed members of the team to dump a Gatorade bucket full of popcorn - one of his favorite foods - over his head.)
The best overall athlete - in terms of the breadth of the sports he played and the longevity with which he continued to play them - to ever grace the White House was George H.W. Bush. (Yes, Gerald Ford was the best football player - obviously - to ever serve as president. But Bush was more well-rounded. He played tennis. Golfed. Parachuted. Played baseball in college. Did almost any sport that could reasonably be called a sport - and did it well.) Bush grew up playing tennis with his mother, and was a skilled and competitive player. He was a light-hitting and slick-fielding first baseman of the Yale baseball team, and even got to meet Babe Ruth just weeks before the Sultan of Swat's untimely death. In office, Bush's competitive fires ran deep - so deep that he organized a March Madness-like tournament of horseshoes played by the permanent White House staff. (There were brackets and everything!) After leaving the presidency, Bush, like all the men who had held the office before and since, found an outlet for his competitive drive in sports. In addition to being an avid golfer and tennis player, Bush even laid claim to inventing the phrase 'You da man!' Yes, seriously.
Barack Obama was the first - but probably not the last - baller president. Obama had a basketball court built on the White House grounds, and invites to his regular pickup games were more precious than getting asked to a state dinner. Obama viewed his competitiveness in pickup as an analog for his competitiveness in politics; once he was in the mix, he wanted to win - and was willing to do whatever it took to bring about that desired result. Obama's rise also dovetailed with the surging popularity of the NBA. Just as Obama was redefining cool in politics, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Kobe Bryant were doing the same on the hardwood.
Then there is, of course, Donald Trump. Like so much else with Trump, the story of his athletic prowess is exaggerated. He was a good baseball player in high school but almost certainly not, as he has often claimed, the best baseball player in the state of New York. He is a good-bordering-on-very-good golfer, but the stories of his many club championships won require a good deal of creative math. He spent years pursuing an NFL team, and if he had managed to buy one - or turn the USFL's New Jersey Generals into one - he might never have had the itch to run for president. Sports and politics appealed to Trump for the same, visceral reasons: Someone won, and more important, someone lost. He liked that - as long as he was on the winning team. Always."
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