Politics & Policy

Obama’s Healthy Habit

Well, how’re you feeling, Brown fans? (No, I’m not talking about the Cleveland football team.) Happy about Tuesday’s big victory? Happy about that 41st seat? No doubt. And to those who were for Coakley, and not Brown: I’m sorry. Losing can be a bitter pill. There will not be Massachusetts in Impromptus today. There was Massachusetts in Tuesday’s Impromptus. Also, throughout that day, and night, I Cornered like mad — scribbled a lot of notes for the Corner (the group blog of this website, as you know). So . . . what to discuss today? I was thinking golf.

Golf? Why? Well, in the current issue of National Review — which I know is snug at your bedside — I have a piece on golf. And politics and society and a couple of other things. I mean, several strands come together in this one piece (or so I hope). And, with your indulgence, I’d like to say a bit more here.

This is what prompted me to write that piece: Our president, Obama, plays golf. A lot of it. He scoots out to the course every chance he gets. And this has some people mighty unhappy, or at least annoyed. For example, here is a piece in The New Republic, which trashes golf, and laments that the beloved Democratic president plays it. (Beloved by Democrats, I mean — although even they are getting a little alienated.)

My piece is of a much different character: “Hail to the Golfer-in-Chief,” it’s called. I’m glad that Obama is a golf guy. It is one of the best things I know about him.

‐Odd that people should be so crabby about golf, and intolerant of it — intolerant of other people’s liking of it. Obama plays a lot of basketball, too. But does he catch any grief for it? No.

By the way, a lot of basketball players are mad about golf, as a lot of people in general are mad about it. No one’s madder than Michael Jordan (the greatest basketball player ever?). You cannot keep him off the golf course. Same with Barkley — although Barkley is a far worse golfer than Jordan. Indeed, Sir Charles’s problems on the course are almost legendary (among readers of golf magazines, among those who follow such things).

‐Obama’s golf came to widespread attention during his Christmas break in his native state, Hawaii. He played and played — through terror concerns and other matters of state, he played. And some people thought this was unseemly. The press noted that Obama has played more rounds of golf in one year in office than George W. Bush did in his eight years. (More about Bush in a minute.)

‐It goes without saying that golf is not for everybody — because nothing is for everybody, except truth and love, and some people kick against even those. A chacun son goût, Vive la différence, and all that. Why can’t we like what we like? I am happy for others to enjoy their sports and pastimes; it’s odd that so many should be so nasty about golf. My perpetual whine is, “Why can’t others be as laissez-faire as I am?” (Anything more unattractive than whining?)

Above, when I was saying “Vive la différence,” etc., I almost said, “Different strokes” — but did not want to get into a golf pun . . .

Some years ago, a co-worker of mine went off about golf, pouring bile on it, with a curled lip. Honestly, the lip was actually curled. He said how boring golf was, how stupid, how abhorrent. I could only say, “Fine. The golf courses are overcrowded as it is. You can hardly get a tee time, and if you do, play is almost unbearably slow. I wish fewer people liked the sport!”

But why did he feel the need to go off in the first place? I mean, I’m not sitting around knocking soccer or some other activity that is not exactly my cup of tea. (More whining.)

‐By the ignorant, golf is seen as a plutocratic sport, merely a country-club taste, not for ordinary folks. Hugo Chávez, I’m happy to say, is a foe of golf, as I noted in Impromptus last summer — when he ordered the closing of some of Venezuela’s courses, and denounced the sport in his usual brutish terms. For one thing, he called golf “bourgeois,” that epithet of the dumb. (Takes me back to college.) And he said, “I respect all sports. But there are sports and there are sports. Do you mean to tell me this is a people’s sport? It is not.”

As I remark in my NR piece, golf is certainly more a people’s sport than Chávez’s government is a people’s government — a genuine people’s government, whatever he and his lackeys call it.

‐That New Republic piece, which I linked to above, had this to say: “In the popular imagination, golf is the stuff of corporate deal-cutting, congressional junkets, and country club exclusivity.” “In the popular imagination,” huh? As I say in NR, I see once more that my own imagination is unpopular. Allow me to quote my piece:

I pretty much grew up in golf, on the munis of Ann Arbor, Mich. (A “muni,” in golf-talk, is a municipal golf course.) I also worked at a couple of these courses. And golf was — is — a thoroughly democratic game. Everybody played. Young and old, male and female, wealthy and broke, respectable and scoundrelly. We had hippies and druggies, in tie-dyed shirts and sandals. We had grimy, tattooed union members. We had snotty left-wing professors from the University of Michigan. We had rednecks from the sticks. We had Korean immigrants who could barely speak English. And so on.

 

The whole world came by these golf courses, and all were united, a bit — not to get too sappy — by this game. Such a glorious game, and an equalizer. On the golf course, the only thing that matters is the game.

 

I might mention, too, that, on the courses of Greater Detroit, there was a whole, wonderful world of black hustling — I mean gambling and the like. I was lucky enough to be introduced to this world. It is very far from, say, Oakland Hills Country Club, the marquee course in the Detroit suburb of Bloomfield Hills. But it is certainly golf — a game that contains multitudes. Those who think that golf is a pastime for uptight WASPs should get out more. But uptight WASPs — as well as relaxed ones — are part of humanity too, remember. If you prick them, won’t they bleed?

‐The pro ranks have seen all types, all types of Americans, and types from all over, too. You have backwoodsmen like Sam Snead — how old was he when he first acquired shoes? You have barrio kids like Chi Chi Rodriguez. Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson were dust-blown Texas kids who worked in the same caddy yard: at Glen Garden in Ft. Worth. That was the most talented caddy yard ever.

Some greats have been comfortably off. Nicklaus’s dad was a pharmacist in Columbus. The Bolsheviks would have had them killed as kulaks, probably. Bobby Jones had the effrontery to go to Harvard. (Also to Georgia Tech and Emory — he was extremely well, and diversely, educated.)

I could go on, having a fair number of golf bios in my head — but the point is, there are almost as many types of golfer as there are types of human being. Better put, they come from all sorts of backgrounds.

‐George W. Bush, who loved golf, stopped playing in August 2003 — in just the third year of his presidency. You may remember this issue — I discussed it a couple of times here in Impromptus. When Bush stopped, he didn’t talk about it. He didn’t make any kind of production out of it. He didn’t take a “stand.” He just stopped, quietly. Five years later, he explained that he stopped playing golf when the U.N. offices in Iraq were blown up. He was on the golf course when that occurred. And he decided it did not look right for the commander-in-chief to be playing golf in time of war.

I will not rehearse all I have said on this subject, and you can see what I think in this column (or in my current NR piece, for that matter). But let me repeat a few, basic things:

1) It’s not as though the president denied himself recreation altogether. He rode his mountain bike all the time, in those bright, huggy shorts. Why is that okay and golf not? Why is basketball okay and golf not? Psychological hang-ups, that’s why.

2) The president’s decision to stop playing golf was perfectly understandable and honorable (though misguided, I think). Yet what a shame that he bowed to a stereotype about golf. That he bowed to the stigma, and, in so doing, furthered it — sort of confirmed it. You know?

3) Our boys at war have played golf for as long as anyone can remember! They have usually played in a makeshift way — we’re not talking about pegging it up at Oakland Hills or anything. At the USGA Museum in New Jersey, you can see homemade golf balls, from the hands of our POWs. Our guys in Iraq are playing right now — funky, ingenious desert golf. I was invited to play when I went in October ’08; unfortunately, the schedule didn’t allow.

‐Yeah, yeah, a president has to guard his image — and sometimes stereotypes and stigmas have to be bowed to. You remember that W.’s father, 41, took some grief when he zipped around in his cigarette boat during the Gulf War. Some people thought it looked cavalier — or pretended to think that.

Quick, what was the name of Bush’s boat?! (“Fidelity.”)

The elder Bush liked golf, too, a lot — and he liked to play fast. He developed something known in BushWorld as “speed golf.” He boated fast, he played fast — that was just Bush (41), and it still is, I’m reliably informed. I know someone who had an invigorating visit with him last summer.

Bush jogged as well, quite a bit. Remember when he was jogging at home in Houston, while Reagan was campaigning in the snows of New Hampshire? Did not look good on television. (This was in the historic ’80 primaries.) Remember “Read my hips,” as a reporter asked a question and President Bush jogged by? Not his very best moment.

Anyway . . .

‐Let’s move to Clinton, good ol’ Billy J. And please let me quote from my NR piece again:

President Clinton, not a country-clubber but the Man from Hope, played golf all the time. Absolutely craved the game. He once observed that he was probably the only president to leave office a better player than when he entered: because he had received many tips from the pros he played with. Of course, he was not known for scrupulous honesty on the golf course, as elsewhere. Bob Woodward tells a story in his book Shadow. One day in 1993, Clinton, President Ford, and Jack Nicklaus played 18 holes together. Afterward, Clinton claimed to have shot a score of 80 (far too low for him). Woodward writes, “Ford was shocked. Golf was a matter of honor, even for old duffers, and Clinton had repeatedly taken second shots, called mulligans. Nicklaus leaned over to Ford and whispered in disgust, ‘Eighty with fifty floating mulligans.’”

I’d also like to mention this: One time, American social anxieties flared up, where Clinton and golf were concerned. Clinton was playing with his pal Vernon Jordan. And a photo was taken of the two of them in a golf cart, Jordan at the wheel. Jordan is black, recall (and Clinton not). Captions everywhere had some play on Driving Miss Daisy, the 1989 movie about a southern woman and her black chauffeur. The photo of Clinton and Jordan was supposed to conjure memories of the bad old days.

But to some people, this was just a photo of two friends playing golf, with race completely irrelevant — to the extent it ever can be in these, color-smitten United States.

‐Care for a few more presidents? President Taft, tubby as he was, loved golf, and all sports. Has anyone, in photos, ever reflected a greater enjoyment of life than Taft does? I kind of wish I’d known him.

Skip way ahead to Eisenhower: He was an ardent golfer, as you know — a member of Augusta National. You can still see “Ike’s Cabin” down there in Augusta. (My apologies to Floridians and others for whom Augusta is “up there.”) The cabin has an eagle on it — a presidential eagle. It has been argued that the three men most responsible for the popularization of golf that occurred in mid-century were Eisenhower, Bob Hope, and Arnold Palmer. Television loved all three of them, and all three of them loved, and championed, golf, in their different ways.

JFK? He might have been known for touch football, but he really, really loved golf, and was quite good at it. Back problems, however. He usually grimaced through them.

LBJ seems not to have played — politics was his all-consuming obsession. Nixon played, awkwardly (as he did so many things). Ford, of course, adored the game. And many have remarked how odd it is that our most athletic president — an All-American football player at Michigan — had the reputation of a stumblebum. Just because he tripped a couple times coming down airplane staircases; just because Chevy Chase had that act on Saturday Night Live.

Carter did not play golf: He fished and jogged. (I know you remember the killer rabbit. But do you remember that he entered at least one race — a run — too?) Reagan was not close to golf, while in the Oval Office. He had been earlier in his life. While president, he played basically once a year, around New Year’s Day. That was at Walter Annenberg’s private nine-hole course in Palm Springs. Once, someone asked the White House press office for Reagan’s handicap. The reply came: Classified. National-security secret.

Here’s a little aside. One day, at the ranch, Reagan remarked to Nancy, “Don Regan says he’s golfed out.” Nancy answered, “Oh? Well, I have some work for him to do around here.”

‐Remember, the more time President Obama spends on the golf course, the less time he spends in the Oval Office. The less time he spends governing, and socializing (and by “socializing,” I don’t mean hanging with friends).

‐Let me quote some more from that NR piece, please:

On the golf course, as I have indicated, the rest of the world can sort of melt away. Also, a camaraderie, or brotherhood, can develop. The legendary teacher Harvey Penick once wrote a book with a memorable title: “And If You Play Golf, You’re My Friend.” I imagine that President Obama and Rush Limbaugh would enjoy a round of golf together. I’d like to make a third! And maybe the president could suggest a left-leaning fourth, so that our group is philosophically even? (Incidentally, Obama is a lefty on the golf course, same as he is off — he plays left-handed, I mean.)

‐I don’t know what your experience has been, but I’ve found that I can’t lead someone to like golf, or appreciate golf. You kind of can’t tell people about golf — they have to discover it for themselves. It’s hard to talk to people about religion, or music, or certain other things. They either come into an appreciation or they do not.

There was a time in my life when I couldn’t understand how anybody could watch golf on television. I saw my grandfather and my father do it — and they both watched very little television. And I couldn’t believe it — couldn’t believe they could be so interested. There came a time, however, when I was equally interested, and more so. I was riveted to golf on TV as though it were the most irresistible movie. What happened? I don’t know.

There was a time when I didn’t care for Wagner operas — for complete Wagner operas, I mean. I always liked excerpts — preludes, arias, set-pieces, and the like. But, at some point, I fell for Wagner — for his whole enchiladas. Something simply clicked. And Parsifal went by like a bagatelle. Don’t know why.

I had a similar experience with ballet. When I was younger, I would rather slit my wrists than watch a ballet. And then — a click. Maybe it’s maturity? But for some people, in some areas, the click never comes. There is almost no art museum in the world in which I can bear to spend more than an hour. Don’t know why.

Tell you this, too: I respect hockey, a great deal, and I admire hockey players enormously — think they are among the world’s very best athletes. Why I can’t watch a hockey game, with pleasure, I don’t know. Just a block, I suppose.

Anyway, I have found that you can’t talk people into golf — you can’t evangelize about golf. It’s hard even to point people in a favorable direction. They come to it; or they don’t. The game gets under their skin; or it doesn’t.

Different strokes . . .

‐Wrap this baby up? Okay. I say at the end of my NR piece that there are three things I like about our president, Obama, a lot — at least three things. 1) He swatted that fly. (Remember? As he was about to be interviewed? PETA later complained.) 2) He called that rapper — the one who disrupted that award ceremony — a “jackass.” 3) He has a serious jones for golf. Seriously, I’d like to peg it up with him, Rush, and a player to be named later.

Let it not be said that I am perpetually naysaying about Obama. Merely almost perpetually naysaying.

‐Do a quick language item, before cutting out altogether? Impromptus today is titled “Obama’s Healthy Habit.” That should really be healthful habit — “conducive to health; wholesome or salutary.” “He is healthy because he has a healthful attitude.” But everyone these days says “healthy” for “healthful.” And sometimes — sometimes — you bow to the demotic . . .

Later.

#JAYBOOK#

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