Sunday, June 19, 2011

Golf Gate

I had formed the opinion many years ago that the problem with U.S. presidents in the Modern Era was that they were all dog lovers rather than cat fanciers; the deep-seated psychological need for the slathering loyalty of their aides, typical of dogs, rather than for the independence typical of cats, led, I felt, to an unhealthy state of mind in which these presidents believed the nonsense urged upon them by their sycophantic acolytes and treated any dissent as treason.

Now I have a different idea, more fitting in its metaphorical allusions and more accurate in its telling nuances: the nadirs of American political life have coincided with the incumbency of golf-less presidents.

Eisenhower, of course, of golf course, was mad for the game. Undoubtedly, that is why the 50s are known as the Good Old Days.

Kennedy complained bitterly, and unreasonably, I think, about the spike marks Ike left in the teak-wood flooring in the White House. Athletic as he was, I am sure JFK usually begged off of any invitations with some lame excuse about his bad back; that is, he gave the appearance of a golf-playing president, but in actuality, he was not, being more pre-occupied by other indoor diversions. I am just as sure that the recent detrimental revisions of the image of the Camelot presidency reflect this duplicity.

Neither Johnson nor Nixon golfed, really, the idea is ludicrous. These alone are enough to establish the prima facie case to anyone but the most biased observer. Johnson loved only politics and Nixon loved that most execrable of all sports, pro football. Both of these men would have improved their characters by acquainting themselves with the self-regulating nature of golf. It can hardly be denied that the course of history would be different if either of these men had had an ounce of restraint, or humility . . .

Ford played golf. One has to contemplate the agency of Richard Nixon which has been indirectly responsible for imposing the two worst golfers in political history, Ford and Spiro Agnew, upon the American Public. Still, Ford rendered an Everyman quality to every Presidential Round that had a certain healing effect on the country that was very necessary at the time.

Carter did not play, and there is ample evidence his character would have benefited from the experience, but of course, that is true of all powerful men, and especially, dog lovers. The leavening of the soul with humility imposed on the golfer would have improved all of these presidents, introducing to each of their consciousnesses the concept that they might fail through the intervention of no one else, mortal or divine, but only through their own frailty. But of course, Carter, more than any of the others, needed to experience the sheer diversion of golf, which can render all else unimportant.

Reagan did not play, and anyone who has seen him chop wood would know why: his stroke is entirely inappropriate to the game. Aside from the fresh-air exercise which the Gipper would certainly have enjoyed, the mental exercise in remembering his correct score would have pleased the whole country.

Bush and Clinton both play golf, true enough, so it is important to draw the correct conclusion from the evidence: how the the presidential golfer scores is not as important as how he plays. While we would like to see a slow backswing and a balanced, full follow-through rather than a tense, quick half-swing, what is most important is what kind of playing partner does he make. Can he be trusted in the deep rough, or will he resort to Nixonian footwedges? Is his score honest, or is it the result of Reaganesque absentmindedness and disarming sandbaggery? Is he a good fellow, or is he prone to Carter-like enforcement of obscure rules that will cost strokes?

One of the enduring images of the War to Restore Kuwaitian Sovereignty remains that of Bush playing golf during the early days of the crisis, rather than "being a captive of the Oval Office". Although this caused a great deal of negative commentary at the time, to be true to my newly formed political theory, I must come down on the positive side. To a certain degree these apocalyptic events are inevitable, anyway, and sometimes, there only just so much the Leader of the Free World can do.

This calls to mind a conversation from the golf stories of P.G. Wodehouse in which The Oldest Member of the Club instructs a wayward youth who has fallen from the wholesome companionship of golfers into the bad company of lawn bowlers. Defending himself, the youth points out that Sir Walter Raleigh delayed his defense against the attack of the Spanish Armada long enough to finish a game of lawn bowling. To which the Oldest Member replies, "If he had golfed instead, he never would have launched the defense at all."

At this point in history, it is fruitless to conjecture as to the value of the War, but it might be worthwhile speculating on what unknown disasters were averted by the happenstance of Bush being on vacation at the time. Who knows what rash actions were averted, possibly a premature attempt at a land war.

What triggers these ruminations is the speculation in the press concerning the reunion of Bush and Quayle at the Doug Sanders Seniors Classic at Kingwood lately. {circa 1993 if my memory serves me well, which is more-and-more unlikely I have come to find - author} There is a widely held misconception that this is a first.

Not many people were aware of the round Bush and Quayle played with Clinton and Gore at the Burning Bush Country Club prior to the election, in an attempt to elevate the election partisanship from a full-contact sport. Unfortunately, it had the exact opposite effect; in fact, the most vitriolic repartee in the closing days of the campaign can be directly traced to that match.

We know about this match, which was played on one of the most exclusive private clubs in the Washington area, only due to the fact that in addition to the secret service agents, Ross Perot supporters had infiltrated the caddy ranks.

From the first tee, it was clear that as a social, rapport-building event the match was a failure. Bush and Qualye sliced into the right rough; Clinton and Gore hooked into the left rough. They would play that way most of the day, meeting only on greens and tees.

This was a two-man scramble, match-play, for leadership of the only true superpower left in the world. Needless to say, it got uglier and uglier.

On the second hole, Clinton was overheard complaining about slow play in a pointed manner.

At the third green Quayle felt called upon to wonder to himself out loud why some people were so busy fixing invisible ball marks while he was trying to putt.

On the fourth tee, Gore compared Bush's swing to the way his Grandma flipped hotcakes.

On the fifth fairway, Bush commented in a very sarcastic manner about the miraculous nature of a Clinton recovery shot, from behind a tree in deep rough.

On the sixth green, Clinton questioned Quayle's shot count.

On the seventh fairway, Quayle asked Gore if it was really necessary to repair every divot he came across. Gore told Quayle to widen his stance a little bit so that maybe he would not take so much turf with every swing. Quayle told Gore then that maybe he should carry Quayle's clubs, so that it would be legal when he gave advice. Gore pointed out that the caddy might manage the weight of Quayle's bag better if there were only 14 clubs.

So tensions were flaring a bit at that point in time, possibly because in addition to the natural antipathy felt by the teams, the Democrats were leading 3 holes to 1, giving rise to just the smallest bit of smug condescension to color their demeanor, while the Republicans were seething in discontent.

You may well wonder how the Dems could lead the Reps, when Quayle is widely acknowledged as the best striker in Washington. Unfortunately, Bush insisted on playing his drives, even when they were 50 yards shorter than Quayle's. This would have been bad enough were they winning, but they were losing and Quayle bridled at this faulty strategy. Bush also insisted his drives were in the middle or on the right, even when he had hooked it to the left, which only increased Quayle's aggravation.

Of course, the players expected a certain amount of partisanship, which up to a point, gratifies the competitive spirit in a gentlemanly way. But no one anticipated that the simmering ambitions of the Vice-Presidential nominees would surface in open conflict with the bottled-up insecurities of the Presidential candidates.

So it was a surprise when Gore chose the Eighth Tee as the place to suggest a more upright stance and a fuller follow-through to Clinton. Nobody takes golf advice well, although a duffer will suffer in silence the critique of his club pro; but nobody wants to hear swing corrections in the middle of round. Clinton's silent reproof as he surveyed his foozle short of the women's tee apparently caused Gore to top his own ball, several times.

So they both looked as if they were practicing for the Easter Egg Roll on the White House Lawn.

Perhaps it was less of a shock that Quayle finally exploded on the Ninth Green, when Bush not only missed a birdie putt to win the hole, but knocked it 15 feet passed the hole. As the old scottish pro said to explain his own oaths, the provocation was great; still, the relative informality of the golf course does not give one leave to refer to the First Golfer as a "wrong handed, long-handled yippie", a term which seemed to have political connotations to Bush.

Presidential recriminations never reflect well on either party, as when a snarling Nixon shoved a snivelling Zieglar, or when an imperial Kennedy snubbed an ingratiating Johnson, but neither of those public slights could match the vicious malice of Bush handing Quayle his putter with a newly hinged faux-Medicus shaft.

It was a surly lot that trudged up to the halfway house. In a tragic attempt to knit up the ravelled ends of the game, Gore made an offer to buy the drinks. Quayle ventured that he would have an Old Granddad on the rocks and pointedly ignoring the glare from Bush, said "Make it a Double". Clinton opted for a Strip-and-Go-Naked, of course, Bush ordered a neat single-malt and Gore got a fizzy mineral water for himself.

The trouble started up anew when Gore tried to sign for the drinks. This somehow offended the republican pay-as-you-go sensibilities. Both Quayle and Bush reached for their wallets. While Gore protested, Clinton ordered another drink and told the bartender to add it to the tab. When Bush made an unguarded aside about "Drink and Spend Democrats", Clinton responded with an unchecked flurry of imputations of Republican deficit accounting on the golf course. Only the solid intervention of the club secretary at that crucial minute prevented a real donnybrook. At his direction, after consulation with the head pro, both parties were excused from the course.

In the lesser sports, there is no stigma to being asked to leave the field: in hockey, such an invitation is an extremely transient inconvenience; in basketball, it is often the badge of complete effort or total desire; in baseball, it is often seen as a necessary and desirable response to the inadequacies of the umpiring staff; in football, disqualification simply does not occur. In auto-racing, being waved off the track is more likely due to equipment failure than as discipline for unsportsmanlike driving.

But even these men, hardened by years in politics against any form of sensitivity, recognized the shame of their eviction. Which is why till now the bi-partisan cover-up of "Golf-Gate" has been so complete and successful.