Our New Point Guard-in-Chief

Though I am no presidential scholar, I dabble in the field. But armed with only my dilettante's knowledge, I still feel safe in saying that to the many historic firsts that will be marked with Obama's inauguration, we can add that it will be the first time that a sitting President's sport of choice will be the game of basketball.

Given that Obama is a child of mixed-race parentage and the first person of color to hold the highest of American offices, it seems fitting indeed that B-ball is his game, this sport that among other things has evolved into a symbol of hope to impoverished African Americans across the nation as a ticket to college and in some rare cases unimaginable wealth. That Obama, a symbol in and of himself of the profoundest hope, should be by all accounts a dedicated pick-up basketball player is so appropriate that it couldn't have been scripted better in a Hollywood screenplay.

Presidents always have been symbols, after all, and in this sports-mad nation that we live in, the games that presidents play have taken on great significance in how we understand them as men and leaders. As with so many tenets of modern political campaigns, you could trace back to John Kennedy the awareness that there is no greater way for a Presidential candidate to humanize himself than to allow the American public to witness him at play. Kennedy's legendary family touch-football games not only presented a vivid image of health and vigor, but they aligned a man who at that point, as a Catholic, seemed alien to much of mainstream America into seemingly instant harmony with its core values. You see a man with a good head of hair throwing a football to a child in a verdant meadow and you can't help but think to yourself, "there is a man I can trust."

For the flipside of that equation, consider the worst sporting bungle in the history of Presidential elections, a recent debacle involving another Senator from Massachusetts and water-sports. The infamous John Kerry windsurfing photo was disastrous for his campaign because at exactly the wrong moment it crystallized everything that the nation already suspected of him, and disliked; that he was an astronomically wealthy playboy of expensive leisure pursuits. It made W., progeny of one of the great sporting Presidents, seem masculine and down-to-earth by comparison. You think of the Bush family, you think of the lean George Sr. jogging or throwing horseshoes or smacking tennis balls on the run. For all his pasty, ineffectual blathering, by all accounts George Bush the elder was a hell of an athlete.

Far from the best athlete, however, who's ever occupied the Oval Office. That prestigious award has to be considered a toss-up between two vastly different Presidents of the 20th century, neither of whom, ironically, was elected to his first term in office.

Teddy Roosevelt, who as Vice President ascended to the role of Commander-in-Chief after the assassination of William McKinley in 1901, is today rightfully considered the founding father of the sporting Presidency, what with his emphasis on physical education and his aura of pugnacious virility. Roosevelt was a hunter, a wrassler, and a champion boxer in his Harvard days. He was the Presidential equivalent of Hemingway, multi-talented, much concerned with questions of manliness and on the whole spoiling for a fight at every turn.

The great T.R., however, comes in as a narrow second as the greatest athlete ever to serve as President. And what a forgettable President that was, Gerald R. Ford, the Vice President who took the helm after Richard Nixon resigned in 1974. Ford was a star linebacker at Michigan on two undefeated national championship teams in 1932 and 1933. He holds the unlikely honor of being the only future President ever to have tackled a future Heisman Trophy winner, taking down the winner of the very first Heisman, the University of Chicago's Jay Berwanger, during a game in 1934. As a member of the 1935 College All-Star team, Ford played in an exhibition against the Chicago Bears at Solider Field, that ferocious Monsters of the Midway-era team that featured Bernie Masterson and Bronko Nagurski. In 1994, Michigan awarded Ford its highest sporting honor, retired his #48.

Admittedly, though Obama promises to be an infinitely more memorable President, he simply is not in Ford's league in terms of his athletic credentials. Actually, in coming up with a sporting Presidential comparison for Obama, I'm afraid that Nixon's name leaps to mind, but only in so far as Obama has expressed an interest in changing the way that college football crowns its national champion. You may recall that in 1969 the football-obsessed Nixon took a similar interest upon himself, anointing the Texas Longhorns national champions by Presidential decree after they beat the Arkansas Razorbacks in a game that many still call the greatest college football game ever played.

Obama's college football predilections aside, however, perhaps his most appropriate sports antecedent in the Oval Office is also his own personal Presidential hero, Abe Lincoln. Honest Abe was something of an amateur wrassler in his day, and famously defeated the great Jack Armstrong, a feat that came to be quite an unexpected feather in his cap during his Presidential campaign.

It's what that victory stood for that links Obama to Lincoln in my mind, for Lincoln, and to a certain extent Teddy Roosevelt as well, both occupied the Presidency during deeply troubled times and were called upon to confront giant symbols of corruption and greed in conflicts that threatened the very foundations of the nation. It's no mystery that the image of them as strong, swarthy athletes who could stand toe-to-toe with any man was a central component of the mythology that surrounded them. Just like today, theirs were not times where America would tolerate windsurfing or any of its effete equivalents from its leaders. 

Which brings me back to Obama, the guy who isn't afraid to mix it up on the playground and throw a few elbows when tempers flare. Obama has a reputation for being as fiery on the basketball court as he is cool and articulate in his rhetoric, and this is exactly what the nation craves from a leader right now, a man who plays hard but keeps his head when the pressure is on. It's almost too perfect that basketball is Obama's game, and yet like so many things with this man, it's proven over time to be no affect but rather simply who he is, part of an entire package that now has the nation simply giddy with anticipation. 

On that score, I'll conclude by wondering if we now have leaked videos of White House pickup games to look forward to on the Nightly News. If so, let me put it mildly and say that if nothing else it will be a welcome change from the jogging Bushes and the cigar-chomping Bubba Clinton shots from the golf course.


This post originally appeared on the Sporting Blog. For more, see The Sporting Blog Archives.

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