Our Lonely First Duffer
What Barack Obama’s golf game tells us about his presidency.
By MICHAEL HIRSH
August 07, 2014
To many of us who play golf and generally suck at it—that’s me, and most others—it is less a game than a subtle form of torture, a walking stress position. Other sports may be more physically taxing, but none tests one’s character so severely—nerves, integrity, honesty and above all temper. (If you’ve ever four-putted from 20 feet or chunked an easy chip into a sand trap, you’ll know what I mean). Naturally, because golf is so hard on the psyche as well as the wallet, it is unusually revealing about the true nature of people—and, of course, presidents. “If the people wish to determine who is the best candidate, put all the contenders on the golf course,” the golfing great Gene “The Squire” Sarazen once remarked. “The one who can take five or six bad holes in a row without blowing his stack can handle the affairs of the nation.”Lengthy; read the whole article at Politico
That quote appears in a delightful 2003 book, First Off the Tee, by the investigative journalist Don Van Natta Jr., who observed that we could learn a lot from the fact that the last 11 presidents going back to Eisenhower (with the exception of Jimmy Carter) have been fairly obsessed with the game. While detailing their worst habits on the course, Van Natta implied it was no accident that some of the biggest presidential cheaters at golf—Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson, Bill Clinton—were also some of the biggest liars in the Oval Office. Clinton, for example, was notorious for taking what Van Natta called “Billigans”—a play on “mulligan,” golfing parlance for a do-over (which is not allowed under the rules).“If you want to learn about Bill Clinton’s character problem, you don’t have to subpoena Whitewater documents,” conservative commentator Byron York once wrote. “Just watch him on the golf course.”
And what of the current First Duffer? After authorizing airstrikes in Iraq, and despite sharp warnings about a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine (to say nothing of the mess in Gaza), this weekend Barack Obama is headed off for another hack-a-thon on Martha’s Vineyard—his regular August getaway—so it seems like an appropriate moment to ask what this revelatory sport can tell us about No. 44, who by all accounts has become increasingly obsessed with hitting little white balls into tiny holes.
Though a mediocre golfer, Obama is believed to be an honest scorekeeper, which perhaps should reassure us—if only a little—about the official statements coming out of his White House. He is also known for maintaining his preternaturally calm demeanor on the course as well as off. “I’ve never really seen him in a bad mood,” frequent Obama golf partner Alonzo Mourning, the NBA great, told my POLITICO colleague Jennifer Epstein in late April, saying that Obama looked relaxed even when he was dealing with the 2013 government shutdown (from the course, of course).
But golf is revealing about this president in other ways. It has become, more and more, Obama’s refuge from public life—and, perhaps, from what even some friendlier critics are wondering will be seen as a partially failed presidency. Obama himself, who has pretty much given up his first sporting love, basketball, because of a fear of injury (according to Mourning), has said that playing the game is a way “to relax and clear my head.” Yet even a relatively sympathetic pundit like the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank recently questioned whether it was wise for the 44th president to be tallying 180-plus rounds during his much-troubled tenure (compared with only 24 for George W. Bush in eight years), writing: “Is golf really so important that Obama is willing to handicap his political standing?”
What tells us even more about this particular president than his escapist passion for golf, however, is his routinely narrow choice of playing partners over the past five and a half years. Let’s start with the basics: Golf is probably the most social of sports. It is a game virtually designed for getting to know people and expanding one’s networks—for schmoozing, unmonitored understandings out in the open air and private winks over the 19th hole.The self-loathing we hackers experience while playing it is partially relieved by golf’s convivial and lubricious nature (typically helped along by substantial drinking after the torture is done), as well as the opportunities for empathy, commiseration and a lot of good, manly trash talk. ...
In five and a half years of slashing his way through courses from Maryland to Hawaii, the president has managed to turn this most gregarious of games into an intensely private obsession, one he has shared almost entirely with the handful of close friends—many of them old high-school pals from Hawaii—and White House aides he asks into his foursome. Mostly, he plays with junior White House aides. So Obama spends most of his time with golf partners he not only doesn’t have to persuade—he doesn’t even have to talk to them. ...
The problem is that this president doesn’t seem to possess the skills or the desire to get enough votes—full stop. He certainly hasn’t tried very hard to woo wayward members of the opposite party, as many presidents before him have done. And he’s certainly not going to make much progress by spending five hours a day addressing a little white ball—and no one else—on Martha’s Vineyard.
“Let each citizen remember at the moment he is offering his vote that he is not making a present or a compliment to please an individual – or at least that he ought not so to do; but rather he is executing one of the most solemn trusts in human society for which he is accountable to God and his country.” Samuel Adams, April 16, 1781.