There is no shortage of books written about American presidents.
But in his new book, “Power Players: Sports, Politics and the American Presidency (Hachette Book Group), Chris Cillizza adds a new twist to the subject of presidents by examining the interest that every president since Eisenhower has had in sports.
The theme of the book is that their interest in sports isn’t surprising because like it is in politics, winning is everything in sports.
And even if they aren’t that into participating in sports, they know how to use the interest of others in sports to gain what they wanted.
For example, Lyndon Johnson had no interest in baseball but he learned that Richard Russell, then a powerful senator from Georgia back when the Solid South was Democratic.
So Johnson started attending games with Russell, who was a loner and didn’t have anybody to go with. He attended few games before Johnson started going with him. And Russell started viewing him as sort of a surrogate son and helped him pass the 1957 Civil Rights bill that was so critical to Johnson’s reputation. That helped him get on the ticket in 1960.
A friend said Johnson could care less about sports, entertainment and movies. But he used baseball to his advantage.
Still some of the presidents cared a lot about sports.
Eisenhower, for example, was such a serious golfer that he went to Augusta 45 times, 29 as president. They also built him a three story seven bedroom cottage near the 10th tee at Augusta.
He also played football at West Point before he suffered a knee injury and turned to poker and was very good at it. He later played a lot of bridge. The author then goes all through the presidents after Eisenhower and chronicles their athletic exploits or lack thereof.
The best athlete was probably Gerald Ford, who played center at the University of Michigan and was offered a contract by the Green Bay Packers. Still Ford had some spills and Chevy Chase exaggerated them on Saturday Night Live.
It wasn’t generally known what a good athlete he was. He was even a good skier.
Cillizza writes, “The dirty little secret about Gerald Ford then was that he as a very good athlete. Which shouldn’t surprise exactly no one – and yet it does.” Ford kind of downplayed his athletic ability because athletes sometimes aren’t considered the sharpest knives in the drawer.
I wasn’t surprised he was a good athlete because I grew up in Grand Rapids and knew his background. My dad was in his high school class and played in the band. When Ford became president, I was working at UPI in New York and told our columnist before he went to interview Ford and the columnist mentioned my dad.
Ford said, “Oh, you mean Phil’s son.” Ford never forgot his roots.
At least two presidents managed to inflate their athletic accomplishments.
In campaign stops at Ohio University in 2008 and 2010, Joe Biden said his Delaware team beat the Ohio University Bobcats in 1963. It turns out Delaware did win but Biden wasn’t on the team. The author says Biden “fibbed.”
And then there was Donald Trump. Not surprising that he pretended to be a better baseball player than he was in high school. Slate magazine did a deep dive into Hudson Valley papers and found nine box scores in which he had four hits in 29 at-bats.
By contrast, George H.W. Bush was good enough to be a first baseman at Yale and the book includes a picture of him meeting Babe Ruth shortly before he died.
The book is a good read filled with anecdotes like this. Cillizza said the idea for the book has been rattling around in his brain for the better part of five years and it turned out to be a good idea.