Sports Sharpen the Presidential Image

George Tames/The New York Times

Asked what Bernie Sanders was “like as a kid brother,” his brother, Larry, recalled on CNN last month that he was “a very good athlete.” Responding to a question by Chris Cuomo about this comment in last month’s CNN’s Democratic Town Forum, Senator Sanders said that his elementary school in Brooklyn won the borough championship, and that he was “a very good long-distance runner” and “captain of my cross-country team.”

If these remarks made Mr. Sanders more voter-friendly, they fell into a historical tradition by which the sports lives of presidents and presidential aspirants have served to enhance their political images.

We all know how Theodore Roosevelt happily allowed his boxing, horseback riding, tennis and hiking to exemplify his activist, almost hyper approach to presidential power and to life. For those more conversant with the details of his upbringing, the sense that T.R. was almost always in motion showed the determination and other qualities of character that had enabled him to triumph over youthful physical frailty. This inspired people. For instance, a first-grade classmate of mine in Illinois, while showing me his T.R. bust, told me that he hoped to emulate the great man by surmounting his asthma to become an athlete.

Politicians also use their preferences in sport to make themselves seem more accessible. While trying to court working-class Democrats who were turning more conservative, including what he called the “hardhats,” President Nixon had himself photographed while bowling on the underground White House lane. (Unfortunately for him, at least one of the pictures showed him stepping over the line, which may have ominously telegraphed that Nixon did not strictly abide by rules.)

Nixon also went to great lengths to let Americans know what a football and baseball fan he was. During the election year of 1972, he publicly released a personal list of “best” baseball players he had watched play, including Ted Williams, Sandy Koufax, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Jackie Robinson and Maury Wills. George H.W. Bush had a horseshoe pit built behind the White House, which demonstrated that he was more Texas than Yale.

Presidential hopefuls also enlist their sports lives to shore up possible weaknesses in their political personas. Franklin Roosevelt, while seeking the office for the first time in 1932, demonstrated his triumph over polio by swimming for the cameras.

President Truman’s public fast-walking and calisthenics (aboard ship, he once coached staff members and crewmen in a T-shirt that said “Truman Athletic Club”) showed off his stamina and excellent physical condition, which was important because when he left the presidency at age 68, he was one of the oldest to ever hold the office.

Credit...Associated Press

John Kennedy suffered from an injured back and myriad other physical problems. His brother Robert later recalled that Jack spent more than half his life suffering “intense physical pain.” But what voters thought they saw was a president of vigor — swimming, sailing, golfing and playing touch football (although for J.F.K., this was mainly a vestige of earlier days).

In August 1962, when he waded out of the surf before cameras in Santa Monica, Calif., he did not look like someone who had to give physical infirmity the slightest thought. Kennedy established his commitment to the nation’s fitness even before he was inaugurated, then expanded the president’s council on physical fitness to all age groups, and in 1963, started a campaign for Americans to go on 50-mile hikes.

During Ronald Reagan’s campaign in 1980 and afterward, his image-makers, seeking to dispel concerns about his age, had him photographed on horseback and using a chain saw on his California ranch. And after he was shot in 1981, his aides promoted his robust physical recovery by letting it be known that he was “pumping iron” in the new upstairs White House gym.

But while sports lives may enhance a leader’s appeal, they can also take away. Although Gerald Ford was one of the best athletes to be president (he was a star football player for the University of Michigan and received offers from the Detroit Lions and Green Bay Packers), he became better known for beaning spectators on golf courses and for slipping and falling down while walking on airplane stairs, which led to numerous lampoons by Chevy Chase on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live.”

Like Bill Clinton later on, Jimmy Carter became an avid runner, but while participating in a road race in Maryland during his tough political autumn of 1979, he nearly collapsed from heat exhaustion. Fairly or not, the image of the president gasping, with his knees buckling, seemed to capture Carter’s frustrations over gasoline lines, inflation and an impending primary challenge by Ted Kennedy. A George W. Bush commercial of 2004 sought to turn the windsurfing hobby of his opponent, John Kerry, into a metaphor for political overflexibility (“Whichever way the wind blows”).

Dwight Eisenhower loved golf to such an extreme that when rain kept him indoors during his first spring in office, he said he felt “so sorry for myself I could cry.” But political foes tried to turn Ike’s avid golfing life into a symbol of failure to concentrate on his job.

Fans of his 1956 Democratic opponent, Adlai Stevenson, held up signs demanding “a working President.” In 1960, after the crash of an American U-2 spy plane on Soviet territory soured American relations with Moscow, the Soviet leader, Nikita Khrushchev, complained that the problem was that Eisenhower spent more time playing golf than being president.

By his last year in the presidency, Ike was still wildly popular among Americans. But the suspicion that he spent too much time on the golf course was sufficiently widespread that some politicians sought to obscure the depth of their own passion for golf.

In the spring of 1960, for instance, when the presidential aspirant John Kennedy teed off on a par-three hole with an old friend, Paul Fay, in Pebble Beach, Calif., he watched, aghast, as his ball dropped onto the green and rolled toward the cup. Most aficionados of the sport would be exhilarated to achieve a hole in one, but not Kennedy, who watched with relief as his ball stopped short. “If that ball had gone into that hole,” he said to Fay, “in less than an hour, the word would be out to the nation that another golfer was trying to get into the White House.”

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