Politics & Policy

A Golf Truce?

President Trump waves as he walks on the course of his golf resort in Turnberry, Scotland, July 14, 2018. (Henry Nicholls/Reuters)
There’s nothing wrong with a president who plays golf, so let’s stop pretending there is.

Some recent headlines:

Trump has visited his golf courses for 25 percent of his time in office
Washington Mourned John McCain. President Trump Played Golf
Trump tweets and plays golf as Washington mourns John McCain
Trump hides losses at golf courses in Scotland from voters

(That last one is about financial losses, not sporting losses.)

And some less recent headlines:

Obama’s Hypocrisy on Full Display as He Golfs While Louisiana Drowns
President Obama Golfs 52 Times While U.S. Suffers
Obama Hits Golf Course After Briefed on Berlin Truck Attack
We’ve crunched the numbers, and it’s official: President Obama played A LOT of golf while in office

And, if all that is not petty and trivial enough for you:

Who Looks Better While Golfing: Trump or Obama?

For Pete’s sake, knock it off, you ridiculous little twerps.

I myself am not much of a golfer. It is something I do every now and then when on vacation in California, at the lovely course at the Hyatt Regency in Indian Wells. There are many National Review readers in Indian Wells, which is the most Republican place in California. (Charles Koch lives there.) I took a lesson at that course once, a few years back, the first time I’d ever set foot on a course. It was early in the day, and several pros were watching me. I was curious about why this was. My instructor explained: “They’ve never seen a 40-year-old Republican who has never held a golf club before.” I was, in their estimate, something like Bigfoot or the Loch Ness monster. I did not bother explaining to him that I am not a Republican.

There were a million and one reasons to detest Barack Obama. National Review published a partial list of them, once; it ran for pages and pages. Golf wasn’t one of the reasons to dislike Obama. Jay Nordlinger, who knows a great deal about presidents and golf (and music, and English usage, and Italian pronunciations, and Communists, and how to pronounce “golf,” and much more), wrote that Obama’s love of golf was one of his favorite things about him. “I’m glad that Obama is a golf guy,” he wrote. “It is one of the best things I know about him.”

Of course, nobody really cared about President Obama’s golf. And nobody really cares about President Trump’s golf, either. We’ve just decided that hating each other and shrieking is easier than citizenship, which is awfully hard work.

Some of our best presidents were golf addicts: My man Dwight Eisenhower was a golf fiend and spent a great deal of time on the Eldorado course in Indian Wells, where he lived in the winter. (He was, at his own request, not addressed there as “Mr. President.” They called him “General.”) Eisenhower also played at nearby Thunderbird, where his vice president, Richard Nixon, and one of Richard Nixon’s vice presidents, Gerald Ford, sometimes played, as did George W. Bush. The climate, as you may have heard, is nice: Ford built a house on the Thunderbird Country Club course, and Franklin Roosevelt, though not a golfer, had planned to buy a house nearby for his retirement but died in office. The Obamas joined Thunderbird and were said to be looking at a house that had belonged to the novelist Joseph Wambaugh, but a different writer bought it. (He is the author of the Atlas of Bronchoalveolar Lavage, which I have not read, and the former interim president of the University of Nebraska.) President Taft, someone we conservatives should be revisiting, was a regular golfer.

Jimmy Carter? No golf. And he was rotten. But the rottenest of them all, Woodrow Wilson, was an avid golfer, one who played nearly every day during the war, one who had his golf balls painted black so that he could play in the snow. Bill Clinton played a lot of golf. Mrs. Clinton does not. William McKinley was the first presidential golfer. From that I can conclude only that the love of golf or the absence of that love does not tell us very much about whether a president is worth a damn. Golf might reveal something about them, though: As Jay reports, Bill Clinton was a crooked golfer, one in the ungentlemanly habit of improving his score. Taft was scrupulous, even when his play was poor. Unlike Ford, Taft was not a natural athlete.

I spent the Obama years listening to a lot of my conservative colleagues complaining about his golf habit. I never got that. My own view was that the more time President Obama spent on the grass, the less time he spent making mischief in the Oval Office. He could have played every damned day for all I cared. I’d have raised money for his greens fees. I am sure that there are those who feel the same way about President Trump.

But presidents are never really off-duty, and though there is much I dislike about our increasingly imperial presidency, I cannot begrudge the holders of that office a little recreation, or a lot. For some people, a little diversion clears the head. Some of the least competent people I ever have worked with were workaholics, single-track mediocrities with no other interests in life. Eisenhower played a lot of golf, and the nation rarely has been bettered served by its chief executive.

Also: In the same way that presidents are never really off-duty, many of the people around them are never really off-duty, either. For that reason, the dumb little games partisans play about presidential travel habits are, like criticizing their golf playing, silly and dishonest. “It cost us X million dollars for the president to take that trip!” Every damned week in the Obama years, and much the same in the Trump years. You think those people who are guarding, assisting, doctoring, and advising the president are all off the clock when he’s at the White House? Maintenance and upkeep on Air Force One is what it is — it’s not like they just mothball the thing when it’s not in use. Yes, it costs us a gazillion dollars a day when the president is abroad; it costs us a gazillion dollars a day to maintain the royal presidential household in Washington, too. Apparently, we have grown to like the pomp and circumstance. And so have the people in Washington.

And that says a lot more about our presidents — and about us — than tee times do.

What’s in order is a rhetorical truce. It doesn’t really matter how much golf a president plays. It doesn’t really matter how many “vacation” days he takes, or how often he travels abroad, or whether he spends time with his family in Martha’s Vineyard or Hawaii or Indian Wells. Personally, I’m looking forward to the day when one of them puts on one of those pharaonic headdresses and installs himself at the top of that weird pyramid casino in Las Vegas and declares himself “He of the Two Ladies, Enduring in Kingship Like Re in Heaven.”

And then we’ll miss the days when all we had to bitch about was their golf.

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