Why Are US Presidents Obsessed With Sports?

A new book examines the deep connection between sports and the men who spend their days running the world's most powerful country

April 24, 2023 8:02 am
President George W. Bush throws out the ceremonial first pitch before Game Three of the 2001 World Series between the Arizona Diamondbacks and the New York Yankees at Yankee Stadium on October 30, 2001 in Bronx, New York.
Arguably George Bush's finest moment as President came on a baseball field
Photo by Rich Pilling / MLB via Getty Images

One day in 2014, Donald Trump famously tweeted a complaint that, “with all of the problems and difficulties facing the U.S.,” the country’s then-president, Barack Obama, was out playing golf. Two years later, Trump mentioned Obama’s golf playing in another tweet about how the nation’s airports were apparently “a total disaster” and that “the TSA is falling apart.” Those were just two of the many times Trump levied this type of charge against Obama.

When he became president, though, Trump said on the campaign trail in August 2016, golf would not be a priority. “I’m going to be working for you,” Trump told his supporters. “I’m not going to have time to go golfing, believe me. Believe me. Believe me, folks.”

As political commentator Chris Cillizza points out in his new book, Power Players: Sports, Politics, and the American Presidency, it turned out that — surprise! — Americans had very little reason to believe him. Citing online data and a Washington Post piece, Cillizza writes that Trump played 261 rounds of golf as president, which worked out to an average of one round every 5.6 days. Obama hit the links once every 8.8 days.

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Of course, Obama was also known to hit the hardwood on occasion, once taking an elbow to the mouth while playing basketball in 2010, an injury that required 12 stitches. His presidential predecessor, George W. Bush, once owned the Texas Rangers, and his dad, “H.W.,” ran a horseshoe league out of the White House. Richard Nixon had a bowling lane built in the White House, too, and Dwight Eisenhower kept his putting game strong on a green he had built outside the Oval Office.

Presidents. They’re just like us! But why are these particular men so sports-obsessed? What does the deep connection between the presidency and sports say about the world’s most powerful men? That’s what InsideHook spoke to Cillizza, former host of the CNN series The Point and writer for “The Fix,” a Washington Post political blog, about.

This interview has been edited for context.

InsideHook: Congrats on the book, Chris! How would you describe its concept?

Chris Cillizza: From Eisenhower to Biden, all of them to some degree enjoyed sports. So what does it say about the sports they played as kids — that they loved, whether they played them or not, that they watched, either as kids or adults? What does it tell us about who these people are and what can they tell us about how they chose to govern while in office as president? I think the sports they each engaged with are all telling about who these guys were. What makes someone run for president, what makes them win, and makes them good for the job or bad for the job?

What drew you to this topic in particular?

Once I realized I wasn’t going to be an NBA player as young man, I wanted to be involved in sports reporting in some way. I wound up not going down that road — not for any specific reason; life just presented me with different opportunities. But I always kept sports as something that animated me, something I cared about, that I followed really closely. Writing a book is arduous enough in the best of circumstances, so I wanted to pick something not only that I had interested in, but I had some knowledge of. I didn’t want to start totally from scratch. After researching and discussing some possible topics with my editor, I was stunned to learn that nobody had already written this book. There’s so much there. But I didn’t want it to just be a book of smashed up anecdotes. I also didn’t want it to be a philosophical treatise. I wanted it to be somewhere in between, something accessible like the stuff I’ve always tried to write.

Why in your estimation does it make sense that a person who wants to become President of the United States would also be sports-obsessed?

They’re maniacally competitive is the short answer. These are people who are competitive about everything. The things that draw them to politics — the campaign, the potential for wins and losses — all of that stuff is also present in sports.

The best example of it is George H.W. Bush, who in some ways is the centerpiece of the book. He was not the best athlete — Gerald Ford, I think, clearly was out of all these presidents. Still, Bush did a lot of things really well. He was captain of his baseball team at Yale; he met Babe Ruth like three weeks before Babe Ruth died, which is pretty cool. He was raised to be mannerly and genteel, but also really competitive. His mom was a really good tennis player; she and he played a lot of tennis together and there was a lot of emphasis on being gracious to your opponent and being sportsmanlike. He carries that insane competitiveness throughout his life, though. As he aged he would have competitions with his grandkids over who would fall asleep first.

These are not normal people. And when you think about what makes an athlete great, it’s that they’re competitive to the point of almost being ridiculous. They have no chill. I think that’s why politicians often want to be around athletes, too.

What was one fact that you learned about a president while researching the book that really surprised you?

I thought that I knew everything there was to know about Donald Trump. Unlike Eisenhower, I was alive for Trump and I covered him. But I did not know a lot about Trump’s extensive interest in playing sports. He says he was a really good baseball player, that when he was a kid he was the best ballplayer in the state of New York, which is not true. In college, when he went to Fordham for a year, he was on the squash team, which is so weird to me. His biographer, which I mention in my book, wrote that the subtleties of squash were so lost on Trump. He just tried to bash the ball as hard as he could.

One time, after a loss to the Naval Academy’s squash team, he stopped into a department store, bought a new set of golf clubs, balls and tees and drove to a spot overlooking Chesapeake Bay. Him and his friends just wailed balls into the bay for like an hour and then he left the brand new golf clubs on the side of the road. I just think that’s all so revealing.

You wrote in your book’s jacket that “Donald Trump is the only president ever featured in a professional wrestling storyline — and everything real and fake that went with that.” So what are you saying there about his presidency?

If you want to understand Donald Trump, watch an episode of Monday Night Raw. He and Vince McMahon, the former owner of WWE, are actual friends — and Trump doesn’t have many close friends. He’s very much a loner, but McMahon is someone he’s known for a really long time and he appears to be as close to him as anyone. Trump being close to him and having watched him, I think the lessons he learned from that manner of operating — there are good guys and bad guys, always, in wrestling — is very much in keeping with how he ran his campaigns and his White House. He’s always the good guy; he’s always the victim. I think there’s real parallels there.

What’s one story from the book that, when people read it and maybe first learn about it, might change their perception of that president?

I think there are two presidents out of the ones I wrote about that are clearly misunderstood while they were in office, and that’s H.W. Bush and Jimmy Carter. With Carter, people don’t realize how competitive and sneaky-athletic he was, too. He has that wimp vibe to him, but even though he was short he was a really good basketball player in high school. He grows up in rural Georgia, but his dad was a very competitive and good tennis player who put a clay tennis court next to their house. It was the only clay tennis court in, like, the county. I think there’s a tendency to see that Carter was clueless, but there’s much more to him and sports kind of reveals that.

What’s perhaps the most fun story from the book in your mind?

There’s that famous picture of Richard Nixon bowling; it was in The Big Lebowski and all that. But I didn’t know the extent to which Nixon enjoyed bowling. He had lanes built at the White House and when he was feeling lonely he would go bowling in the White House at like 10 o’clock at night and bowl seven to 12 games. The image of Nixon bowling — literally bowling alone for hours on end — I find both amusing but totally captivating about who the guy was: this loner who was very much more comfortable by himself than with other people. And he was pretty good! He rolled like a 230 at some point and he wanted his press people brag about how good a bowler he was. And now we think about bowling as a totally obscure sport, but back in the 1970s it was a big deal. The first athlete to be sponsored by a company was a bowler, which is so weird to me. I think that story is both illustrative of who Nixon was and fun. That was how he relieved stress. It may not be interesting to everyone, but I found it fascinating.

And we almost had a presidential sports-related death that you cover.

I didn’t know a lot about Eisenhower, especially outside of his presidency, so writing my chapter about him was in some ways the most fun for me. Eisenhower played 10 times the amount of golf that Obama or Trump played. He played all the time. He would go away for months on end and go play golf. He was in Colorado on one golfing trip and his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, was bugging him, trying to get a hold of him via landline. Eisenhower is getting increasingly pissed off about it because he just wants to concentrate on golf. And at the ninth hole he has a huge burger with onions on it and stuff, and on the back nine he gets what he thinks is just indigestion and he partly blames it on Dulles annoying him. He’s supposed to play 36 holes that day. He cuts it short at 26, and at like 2 o’clock in the morning he’s having chest pains. Later, at the hospital and they figured out he had a heart attack, while on the golf course. This is pre-25th Amendment and any line-of-succession stuff. So, was Nixon going to be president? Was he not? There was no way of knowing and they didn’t tell anybody for hours. It speaks of such a different time. It feels like 300 years ago.

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