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The Games Presidents Play

Sports and the Presidency

John Sayle Watterson

Publication Year: 2006

The Games Presidents Play provides a new way to view the American presidency. Looking at the athletic strengths, feats, and shortcomings of our presidents, John Sayle Watterson explores not only their health, physical attributes, personalities, and sports IQs, but also the increasing trend of Americans in the past century to equate sporting achievements with courage, manliness, and political competence. The author of College Football begins with George Washington, whose athleticism contributed to his success on the battlefield and may well have contributed to the birth of the republic. He moves seamlessly into the nineteenth century when, for presidents like Jackson, Lincoln, and Cleveland, frontier sports were part of their formative years. With the twentieth-century presidents—most notably the hyperactive and headline-grabbing Theodore Roosevelt—Watterson shows how the growth of mass media and the improved means of transportation transformed presidential sports into both a form of recreation and a means of establishing a positive self-image. Modern presidents have used sports with varying degrees of success. Herbert Hoover fled Washington on weekends to the trout pools of Camp Rapidan in the Blue Ridge to escape relentless pressures and public criticism during the Great Depression. Franklin Roosevelt demonstrated remarkable physical endurance in his campaign to restore his ravaged body from polio. An obsessive love affair with golf became an issue for Dwight Eisenhower in his campaign for reelection in 1956. Richard Nixon, a former third-string college football lineman, placed calls to Coach George Allen of the Washington Redskins, once suggesting a trick play in a big game. From the opening pitch of the baseball season to presenting awards to Olympic champions, our sports culture asks the president to play an increasingly active role. Sports, Watterson argues, open a window into the presidency, shedding new light on presidential behavior and offering new perspectives on the office and the sporting men—and women—who have and will occupy it.

Published by: The Johns Hopkins University Press


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xi

In the winter of 2001, when I began research on this book, Bill Clinton had just left the presidency and George W. Bush had recently taken the oath of office. For a historian of contemporary sport, I could not ignore the parallels of the old and new presidents. Clinton played golf with a disregard for the rules that seemed to mirror his behavior in Monicagate...

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pp. 1-5

In October 1905 President Theodore Roosevelt held a luncheon for the warring athletic potentates from Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. The meeting was the first time a president had intervened in a sporting controversy. Though Roosevelt had not played football, he was a football enthusiast and had a plan to reform the then controversial sport...


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Chapter 1. In the Beginning

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pp. 9-19

George Washington may have been the most talented athlete of all our presidents. In both war and peace, he demonstrated remarkable endurance and strength. Standing almost six foot three and weighing more than two hundred pounds, Washington had muscular arms and remarkable agility, especially on horseback...

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Chapter 2. The Sporting Frontier

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pp. 20-26

Andrew Jackson, whose career of fighting on the frontier stretched from the Revolution to the War of 1812, would be the second general on horseback to arrive at the White House. While still a young man, he began studying law and also cultivating some of the wealthy men in town by being a true authority on horses and, later, by being a very successful owner of racehorses...

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Chapter 3. Barely Visible to Press and Public

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pp. 27-34

The presidents in the late 1800s may have been visible, but their sports were normally hidden from view. In the nineteenth century, sports still bore the imprint of childish games or, in the case of boxing, were regarded as symptoms of moral degeneracy. Yet the games of our presidents, as Grant’s later years demonstrate, were evolving into a sporting presidency that would become visible...


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Chapter 4. Theodore Roosevelt: Climbing the Mountain

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pp. 37-46

Theodore Roosevelt, a name synonymous with power, status, intellectual curiosity, and energy, introduced a new era in the sporting presidency. In his attitudes, habits, and sporting interests, Roosevelt marks a clear departure from his predecessors—youths who were rural strong men, horse traders, and solitary swimmers, or farm boys whose hunting...

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Chapter 5. Sports and the Presidency: The Founding Father

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pp. 47-62

The young vice-president Theodore Roosevelt was mountain climbing in the Adirondacks when he got a message that President McKinley was near death. Thinking that McKinley was out of danger after an assassination attempt in Buffalo, he had gone to the hunting lodges near Tawahaus, New York, one of his favorite wilderness areas. Roosevelt had climbed to the summit of Mount Marcy...

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Chapter 6. Inside TR’s Sporting Presidency

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pp. 63-72

Unlike his well-publicized hunting trips, much of Teddy Roosevelt’s daily exercise took place closer to home. Beginning with Ulysses Grant, presidents normally left the White House for two or three months each summer to escape the sweltering heat in Washington. Likewise, Roosevelt and Edith along with their five children went to their Long Island home...


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Chapter 7. William Howard Taft: A Large Legacy

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pp. 75-90

Standing six feet, William Howard Taft weighed well over three hundred pounds. When he moved into the White House, a Taft-sized bathtub had to be installed. Like Roosevelt, he rode horseback—when told of a long horseback ride by Taft in the Philippines, Roosevelt’s secretary of state, Elihu Root, asked, “How is the horse?”...

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Chapter 8. Woodrow Wilson: More than Just a Game

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pp. 91-106

Commenting on rumors that Woodrow Wilson had had an affair with a married woman, Teddy Roosevelt once remarked: “You can’t cast a man as a Romeo who looks and acts so much like an apothecary’s clerk.”1 No image better depicts the prim, bespectacled, and intellectual Professor Woodrow Wilson—at least the public Wilson. That he was a golf-aholic during his White House days...

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Chapter 9. Warren Harding: The Wager He Didn’t Win

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pp. 107-118

When Congress passed the joint resolution to formally end World War I, all it lacked was President Warren G. Harding’s signature. The young government aide who brought the treaty from Washington to New Jersey, where Harding was playing golf, had to wait nearly two hours until Harding could be summoned from the golf course...

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Chapter 10. Calvin Coolidge: Grace, under Pressure

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pp. 119-132

Among twentieth-century presidents, none was less athletic than Calvin Coolidge. In spite of his lack of interest and ability, Coolidge was able to create the appearance of a sports-friendly president who enjoyed the outdoors. Much of this stemmed from the efforts of others, particularly his wife Grace Coolidge. Why doesn’t Grace Coolidge stand out among presidential first ladies?...

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Chapter 11. Herbert Hoover: No Place to Hide

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pp. 133-148

Herbert Hoover was not a college athlete, but he had close ties with college athletics. A member of the first class at Stanford, he spent considerable energy managing the fledgling Stanford football team. When Stanford played the University of California on Thanksgiving Day in 1893, Hoover was the organizer who made the event possible...

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Chapter 12. Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Politically and Physically Challenged

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pp. 149-169

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was born too late to have his face on Mount Rushmore— his cousin Teddy received that accolade. Instead, in 1997, the nation honored FDR with a memorial on the Washington, D.C., mall, placing him on a par with Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln. The imposing memorial to Roosevelt differs from the other portraits and sculptures of FDR...


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Chapter 13. Harry S Truman: Striding—and Flying—into History

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pp. 173-184

Not only was Harry Truman one of the least athletic presidents; he was also one of the least prepared for the enormous tasks that greeted him when he took the oath of o;ce. He had met with FDR only once before taking o;ce and was wholly ignorant of the wartime military and diplomatic planning, including the project to build an atomic bomb...

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Chapter 14. Dwight D. Eisenhower: Hero under Assault

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pp. 185-200

On September 23, 1955, President Dwight Eisenhower had the worst twenty-four hours of his presidency. He was vacationing in Colorado as he had done for three consecutive summers. It was a great place for fly-fishing, for spending time with old friends or his four brothers, and especially for playing golf...

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Chapter 15. John F. Kennedy: Swimming into Politics

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pp. 201-216

In 1962 President John F. Kennedy published “The Vigor We Need,” an article in Sports Illustrated. Vigor, or “vigah,” as JFK pronounced it, might have summed up Kennedy’s short life and brief presidency. Because he was seldom healthy, he had to feign the vigor and vitality that came naturally to other members of his family...

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Chapter 16. Lyndon Johnson: The Games He Didn’t Play

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pp. 217-226

On November 22 the staff at the LBJ ranch in the hill country near Austin was preparing for the visit of President John F. Kennedy. Before coming to the ranch, JFK would travel to Houston, San Antonio, and then Dallas. Additional security arrangements were in place as well as the preparations for a lavish barbecue spread out under the live oaks and facing the Pedernales River...


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Chapter 17. Richard Nixon: Show Me a Good Loser . . .

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pp. 229-244

In 1952, at the Republican convention in Chicago, Senator Richard Nixon happened to see Jackie Robinson, the first African American major league baseball player, in the hotel lobby where the California delegation was staying. Upon being introduced to the ballplayer, Nixon said that he heard that Jackie had just hit another home run...

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Chapter 18. Gerald Ford: The Pigskin President

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pp. 245-260

Gerald Ford, one of the greatest presidential athletes, stands alone as the only unelected president and, for that matter, the only unelected vice-president. Richard Nixon picked him to succeed Vice-President Spiro Agnew, who resigned in disgrace in 1973. Then, when Nixon himself resigned in 1974 over Watergate, Ford became the “accidental president.”...

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Chapter 19. Jimmy Carter: More than Meets the Eye

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pp. 261-274

Jimmy Carter came to the White House without a conspicuous sports resume. Nothing about his persona or demeanor evoked anything close to the image of a sportsman. He had not played football in high school or college nor did he attend big-time sports events. He didn’t even play golf, and only a few people knew that he was passionate about tennis...

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Chapter 20. Ronald Reagan: Creating a Sports Legend

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pp. 275-292

Ronald Reagan more than once described himself as an ordinary guy. “I like to swim, hike and sleep (eight hours a night),” he said in 1942. “I’m fairly good at every sport except tennis, which I just don’t like.” He played bridge, liked steak covered with onions, and was interested in politics and government...

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Chapter 21. George H. W. Bush: TR Revisited

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pp. 293-308

When George H. W. Bush moved into the White House in 1989, he had the portrait of Calvin Coolidge replaced with one of Theodore Roosevelt. “I’m an Oyster Bay type of guy,” Bush told a visitor. “Maybe I’ll turn out to be a Teddy Roosevelt.”1 The two men did have a number of similarities. Born to the manor, both delighted in outdoor sports...


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Chapter 22. Bill Clinton: Oh, How He Played the Game

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pp. 311-322

Bill Clinton’s sports stirred more controversy, provoked more curiosity, caused more disdain, and even created more humor—surely more than George Bush and Gerald Ford, possibly more than Richard Nixon, and definitely more than Dwight Eisenhower. A big man at six foot three and 230 pounds, he was taller and heavier than his predecessors...

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Chapter 23. George W. Bush: From Bush Leagues to the Majors

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pp. 323-336

In October 2004 the hapless Montreal Expos moved to the nation’s capital where they were christened the Washington Nationals. In January 2005 President George W. Bush invited the team’s manager, Frank Robinson, to dine at the White House. Bush, a Houston Astros’ fan, told Robinson that while he would gladly go to RFK Stadium to watch the Nationals...

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pp. 337-354

Since Theodore Roosevelt descended from Mount Marcy in 1901, sports have been a small but growing facet of the American presidency. How important? That depends on the president, his interests, temperament, talent, and his needs—and on the nature of the presidency and when he served. Roosevelt could hike through Yellowstone practically unprotected and “scramble”...

Appendix: Ranking the Presidents

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pp. 355-360


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pp. 361-384

Suggested Reading

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pp. 385-394


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pp. 395-402

E-ISBN-13: 9780801892295
E-ISBN-10: 0801892295
Print-ISBN-13: 9780801892585
Print-ISBN-10: 0801892589

Page Count: 416
Illustrations: 32 halftones
Publication Year: 2006