The optics of presidential golf: a historical dilemma (8/30/2014)

President Obama’s befuddling decision to play golf, moments after denouncing ISIS’ savage beheading of an American journalist, cast into sharp relief the historical dilemma that has surrounded presidents who enjoy chasing a little white ball across green pastures. From the time that presidents first swung hickory-shafted golf clubs, they have been stuck in a seemingly inescapable sandtrap of public criticism. The electorate’s estimation of presidential golf has never been very high, but it is scornful of it in times of war and tragedy, as Obama has learned.

As with all things presidential, there is historical context. Ulysses S. Grant may have been our smartest president. The first occupant of the White House to pick up a driver, Grant, it is said, took several swings — missing each time — and threw down the club in disgust, dismissing golf as a stupid game. At one time or another, surely every golfer has found in Grant a kindred soul. There is more than a kernel of truth in the old saw that the Scots bequeathed to the world two gifts — and curses — whiskey and golf.

Presidents who have been afflicted with the curse, have endured criticism and embarrassment. William Howard Taft, the first president to take up the game in earnest, was a large man who loved golf, even though critics harshly criticized his figure on the golf course as an “elephant swatting at gnats.”

Woodrow Wilson, who was so taken with the game that he installed a driving range on the grounds of the White House and played in the winter, was regularly outplayed by his wife, an outcome that contributed to the mounting pressures of his presidency.

Franklin D. Roosevelt knew the gifts of golf. Described by Eleanor as a very good golfer, polio took from him a game that he loved. Ever resourceful and undeterred, as he was in so many ways, Roosevelt directed the Civilian Conservation Corps to build golf courses. His physical limitations drove him to consult with engineers about the creation of golf carts.

The criticism leveled at presidents for playing golf, derided for so many years as a game for bluebloods and a frivolous waste of time, led to acts of deception. John Kennedy, probably the most talented president to tote a golf bag, instructed his advisers to mislead the press corps of his whereabouts when he wanted to play golf. When photographers managed to find him on the first tee, he was often able to dissuade them from taking pictures.

The tenor of the times has affected the electorate’s attitude toward presidential golf. Dwight D. Eisenhower, who presided over a period of great economic expansion, was spared criticism when he governed, so to speak, from the teebox. Bill Clinton’s concerns about the optics of presidential golf drove his team to distraction. His administration, which polled Americans on everything, polled their views on the issue of presidential golf. In in a period in the 1990s, characterized by the most robust economy of the century, the citizenry was forgiving of Clinton’s time on the course. The First Duffer’s frequent mulligans trimmed his score and became fodder for late-night comedians.

The citizenry’s reaction to presidential acts typically is factored into White House decision-making. From the standpoint of substantive policy-making, it didn’t matter whether Obama was on the links or in the Situation Room after reacting with “disgust” to the barbarity of ISIS’ actions. But the optics were bad and suggested an insensitivity to the tragedy that had befallen an American family.

At a minimum, he should have delayed his tee time.

Adler is the Cecil D. Andrus Professor of Public Affairs at Boise State University, where he serves as Director of the Andrus Center for Public Policy.