Statesmen and Pigskins


I was impressed by this line, too: After shooting a grizzly bear, Roosevelt said — boasted — “The bullet hole in his skull was as exactly between his eyes as if I had measured the distance with a carpenter’s rule.”

His arch-rival, Woodrow Wilson, was a big fan of football too — a fan and a coach. “The sport mesmerized him,” says John.

Once, his squad was down two touchdowns. The fans were glum and silent — unhelpful, thought Wilson. “Now is just the time to yell,” he exhorted them. He took it upon himself to lead the yelling. The squad came back to earn a tie.

“Athletics are a safety-valve for animal spirits,” said Wilson, “and if these don’t have a safety-valve, they mix kindly with other spirits. If the men don’t play foot-ball they will play less legitimate games.”

You know how British commentators, covering soccer, say, “Arsenal are not at their best today,” and, “Spain have outfoxed France”? Wilson once asked, “Why is it that Harvard don’t win in football?”

More on this question of honor in football (and other games): A Cornell professor wondered, in JJM’s words, “If football instills moral values, why does it require a referee? Surely well-bred young men should be able to police themselves.”

Football is probably too messy a game for that — you need outside eyes. But there is a game in which participants police themselves, even today. That is golf.

Once, Jones called a penalty on himself in the U.S. Open, probably costing him the tournament. Praised for his act, he bridled, having none of it: “Sooner praise a man for not robbing a bank.”

Roosevelt is compulsively readable, isn’t he? Compulsively readable, whatever we think of him: “The man on the farm and in the workshop here, as in other countries, is apt to get enough physical work; but we were tending steadily in America to produce in our leisure and sedentary classes a type of man not much above the Bengal baboo, and from this the athletic spirit has saved us.”

More TR: “The Latin I learned in college has helped me a little in after life in various ways, but boxing has helped me more.”

President Eliot didn’t like President Roosevelt, and he wasn’t all wrong when he faulted his “doctrine of Jingoism, this chip-on-the-shoulder attitude of a ruffian and a bully.”

TR, in turn, denounced “the futile sentimentalists of the international arbitration type.” Would you like to know something interesting? He won the 1906 Nobel Peace Prize for his mediation in the Russo-Japanese War, true. That was the main reason for his prize. But he also won it for his support of international arbitration. In fact, he gave the court at The Hague its very first case (a dispute with Mexico).

Come to think of it, his mediation in the Russo-Japanese War was a form of international arbitration.

I got a kick out of this: In the autumn of 1904, TR was in the third year of his presidency, piling up accomplishment after accomplishment. He had piled up accomplishments well before he assumed the presidency. And he was celebrating his 46th birthday.

Henry Cabot Lodge cracked, “You have made a very good start in life. Your friends have great hopes for you when you grow up.”

Like Eliot, and unlike Wilson, Nicholas Murray Butler of Columbia was a college president who opposed football. He was a friend of the pro-football TR. In fact, it was TR who nicknamed him “Nicholas Miraculous.” Like TR and Wilson, Butler would win the Nobel Peace Prize, or a share of it — in 1931. (He won for being a pacifist jerk, basically.) (The committee did not put it quite this way.)

At the University of Wisconsin, Frederick Jackson Turner, the great historian, was against football — at least against an unreformed football. A student mob surrounded his house. (What is it about Wisconsin and mobs surrounding houses? We saw this recently in the Left’s disgusting fight against the reform of public-employee unions.) One student yelled out, “When can we have football?” Turner yelled back, “When you can have a clean game.”

I loved this:

At a cabinet meeting later that year [1907], Roosevelt’s interior secretary, James Garfield (who shared a name with his presidential father), teased his boss about Harvard’s football team. Garfield suggested that instead of playing Yale, perhaps Harvard should take on Vassar, which was then a women’s college. “The subject of football has been too sore for me to discuss with Harvard and Yale members of the Cabinet,” wrote Roosevelt. “I behaved with what dignity I could under distressing circumstances!”

Post-reform, Wilson said, “The new game . . . seems far more enjoyable than the old. The new rules are doing much to bring football to a high level as a sport, for its brutal features are being done away with and better elements retained.”

John J. Miller dedicates his book to his three children: who “bring joy and satisfaction to our home even as they’ve transformed it — or perhaps because they’ve transformed it — into our own big scrum.”

To order Jay Nordlinger’s new book, Peace, They Say: A History of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Most Famous and Controversial Prize in the World, go here. To order his collection Here, There & Everywhere, go here.


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