Presidential Sport

This is not going to become a habit, I hope, and it is not political commentary per se, just some general advice, drawing on specific examples, to all Presidential candidates about not trying to seem something you’re not. Well, let me back off from that: running for President is mainly about seeming something you’re not. But still, you have to choose a realistic man or woman of the people image for yourself. Otherwise, you may be found out in a way that damages your chances of being elected.

There are just too many reporters, cameras, and, now, bloggers around to think you can keep much secret. Things get found out these days. If you’re going to engage in what some hair-splitting, old-fashioned types may consider “sexual relations” with a young intern, be ready for the embarrassing details to be printed in full in the NY Times and posted on the internet. The public wants to know I guess, though I didn’t. If you didn’t really come under sniper fire in Bosnia on a trip with many witnesses, don’t expect your assertion that you did will go unchallenged. In my mind, the mere running for President requires either courage or ignorance of its inherent danger (see my recent post), so why make up stories?

Today I’m mainly talking about trying to present an image of yourself as a sports fan or recreational athlete when in fact you don’t care about sports or don’t engage in them. We have certainly had some athletic Presidents. Lincoln was reputed to be a powerful wrestler. Teddy Roosevelt was the extreme case of an overachiever in the manly arts. Ike played football, and I first encountered the word “atheist” as a kid when Eisenhower jokingly defined it as someone who doesn’t care who wins the Notre Dame vs. SMU football game. (Don’t worry if you don’t get it.) Jerry Ford played football (too often without a helmet according to LBJ). Washington excelled at tree chopping and dollar tossing in his youth, or so they used to say.

JFK, despite debilitating health problems, was able to project an image of manly fitness because it had been true in his earlier days and exposing Presidential weaknesses wasn’t given such a high priority in his day. FDR obviously wasn’t an athlete, but he didn’t pretend to be, and he managed to appear much less physically handicapped than he actually was, something that would be difficult to achieve today. Speaking of FDR, I’ll bet Senator Obama envies his ability to flaunt his cigarettes in a holder that became iconic. Every era demands new sacrifices.

In recent years at least, it seems that candidates have striven more to give the appearance of being avid sports fans, probably because sports have become more and more important with the expansion of the sports media. Sports nuts are probably a significant segment of the population, if not, strictly speaking, a voting bloc. Nixon was truly interested in sports, I recall. So much for the idea that that’s a reliable indicator of a successful Presidency, but he did get elected twice.

Our current President also seems to follow sports with genuine interest. He owned a major league baseball team. He can throw ceremonial first pitches all the way from the pitcher’s mound to home plate with some authority, a major step up from the weak short tosses from the stands of not so long ago. So why then would John Kerry have tried to go up against the other guy’s strength in an area where he, Kerry, had a weakness? Maybe throwing back a shot of whiskey à la Hillary Clinton recently would have been a better idea; though, against a recovering alcoholic who’d been on the wagon for years, it could have seemed a bit like hitting below the belt.

In any case, Kerry definitely sought to portray himself as a sports fan, including a fan of NASCAR racing, but with results that worked against him I think. Representing Massachusetts in the Senate, Kerry no doubt had been told it’s important to be a big Red Sox fan. But when he started talking about Manny Ortez (probably a running together of Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz), it only seemed he was trying to remember lines, not speaking from true interest. And about 99.9% of Red Sox fans were going to see that. Yet he doesn’t seem to learn. He avowed that his favorite Sox player when he was a kid was Eddie Yost, who never played a game for Boston. There was an Eddie Yost, all right, who played for the Washington Senators, so Kerry may have truly remembered hearing the guy’s name. He may even be remembering something about him. Kerry said that the thing he really liked about Yost was that he walked a lot. Not hit homeruns or stole bases, but walked! This was not a normal kid baseball fan he was describing.

Kerry was following in the footsteps of the Senior Senator from Massachusetts with his mangling of ballplayers’ names. Ted Kennedy was somehow prompted to refer to the homerun hitters then challenging Roger Maris’s record as “Sammy Suser and Mike McGwire” (at a time when the names of Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire were everywhere). Of course, what he really said was Sammy Susa and Mike McGwire. That extra “r” is just something people from Boston add before a following vowel, in this case the “and.” Think of JFK’s “Cubar” if you’re old enough.

In this Presidential season, Mitt Romney tried to recover from his exaggerated tales of being a lifelong hunter by making jokes about mounting gopher head trophies, which I have to admit is kind of funny. But you don’t have to be a hunter to say you don’t want to take hunters’ guns away, so better not overdo it in the first place. Romney spent a lot of money on his campaign, but seems to have come across as a phony to a lot of voters. The hunting fib couldn’t have helped.

Generally speaking, unless you can pull it off, as Hillary did in showing she was “one of the guys” when she downed the shot of whiskey, don’t attempt man-of-the-people feats. I doubt that hers was a spur-of-the-moment decision and it may have been born of desperation, but it could turn out to have been a brilliant move. How many percentage points was that shot worth? She must have practiced that one, but others have jumped in without thorough preparation.

President Jimmy Carter famously collapsed on camera while jogging during his term of office, which did not convey the image of vigor and stamina he was no doubt hoping for. Carter also became a figure of ridicule when he talked of having to beat off with a boat oar the repeated attacks of an aquatic rabbit that kept swimming toward his boat. The “Killer Rabbit” episode certainly has colored my image of him ever since. Maybe it was a rabid rabbit that really was dangerous or a drowning rabbit that should have been rescued instead of bashed, but it just seems ludicrous in the telling. Better to have kept the rabbit story inside the family. Perhaps that unfortunate encounter with the wild kingdom was enough to sink Carter against Reagan, who by the way got his start as a play-by-play baseball radio announcer using fake crowd noise and bat cracks for time-delayed broadcasts based on telegraphed reports coming in to the station.

Then there were the painful-to-look-at pictures of Kerry trying to catch a football as though it were the first one he’d ever had thrown to him, something to be warded off like an attacking hawk at Fenway Park. Whose idea was that? Why football anyway? Well, the Kennedy Presidential clan used to play touch football, so that might have entered into it. And JFK (the original) liked to sail of course, which may explain Kerry’s windsurfing. But windsurfing doesn’t convey mastery the way posing at the tiller of a sailboat does.

If you’ve never engaged in an activity before, better not do it for the first time with press coverage. As a case in point, if you’ve never bowled before in your life, don’t bowl in front of the television cameras the way Obama did. If you bowl a 37, just say you were under 100 unless you’ve foolishly let the press keep score. People might relate to a guy bowling under 100, but 37 is so low that it casts doubt on your basic physical co-ordination or performance under pressure. Most people who have bowled probably won’t remember having bowled a score that low. If you see you’re on your way to a 37, and the press is keeping score, better quit early. You can say it’s that old bullriding injury acting up or something. Is bowling a requirement for being President? No—so don’t act like it is by doing it in public, unless you can bowl at least, say, 150.

I would also recommend that, if you are as weak in an area as your opponent is, be careful how you ridicule him or her. Cheney could pile on Kerry about referring to Lambeau Field as Lambert Field, but Senator Obama’s talking about Hillary out there in the duck blind like “Annie Oakley with her six shooter” didn’t really work. It hinted at ignorance of both duck hunting, where shotguns are preferred, and Annie Oakley, who was famous for her rifle shooting. Associating Hillary Clinton with Annie Oakley in any way probably wasn’t a good idea, as Annie excelled at something usually thought of as a masculine activity, and who knows what might stick in the voter’s mind.

Looking to the fall, consider that John McCain really is a sports fan. This is neither good nor bad as far as I can see, unless taken to extremes. McCain will no doubt reveal some foibles of his own, but his opponent would be well advised not to try to match him in sports acumen or enthusiasm, because exposure as a phony, even in an unimportant area can tip the scales for some people. McCain really did get shot at too.

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