(CNN) It’s easy to dismiss the importance of how sports and politics commingle in American life. But it’s also a mistake.
There’s an excellent new book by our former CNN colleague Chris Cillizza to bring you up to speed. “Power Players: Sports, Politics, and the American Presidency” is about more than just the sporting lives of US presidents, although those details and backstories are quite interesting. I had no idea that Ronald Reagan was deep into weight lifting or that Donald Trump played college squash. (Cillizza also has a newsletter.)
In a larger sense the book is about how politicians try to manipulate their images, what voters expect from their elected leaders, and how the country has evolved since the 1950s. Dwight Eisenhower’s ties to golfing and the suburban sprawl created by the interstate system that bears his name is no coincidence.
Soccer moms, NASCAR dads, and now, Cilizza argues, pickleball voters.
I talked to him about the book, presidents and sports. Our conversation, conducted by email is below.
Why this book?
WOLF: Two things I know about you, Chris Cillizza: You know a lot about presidents and a lot about sports. So this book is a natural fit. But what’s the thing that inspired you to write it?
CILLIZZA: You nailed it! Sports and politics are my two passions and I have long been looking for a way to write about both of them in a book format.
The idea actually came from a series of conversations between my editor, Sean Desmond, and I about what we could do in the space. Credit where credit is due, it was his seed of an idea that led to the book.
What so intrigued both of us was that with one notable exception — LBJ — every president from Eisenhower through Biden had formative experiences in athletics. Whether they were a star (Gerald Ford playing football at Michigan) or, um, not (Richard Nixon as a tackling dummy for the football team at Whittier College), they all had some early connection to sports that helped to make them who they were.
And it wasn’t just that they played sports at a young age either. Lots of them (Eisenhower with golf, Obama with basketball) played well into middle age and the presidency. And all of them — LBJ included — rooted for teams and followed sports at least to some extent. (Ronald Reagan was perhaps the most casual sports fan of the modern presidents; he was much more into horseback riding than watching golf or football or hoops on TV or in person).
So, it just sort of made sense to write a book detailing the presidents’ relationships with sports. To be honest, I was surprised it hadn’t been done before!
Some very surprising details about bowling and Babe Ruth
WOLF: I was surprised to learn that in avid bowler Richard Nixon’s day top bowlers made more money than top baseball or football players. What’s something you learned that took you by surprise?
CILLIZZA: I LOVE that fact. A bowler was the first athlete in the country to be sponsored by a company!
I got really into the George H.W. Bush chapter for a lot of reasons but most notably because he was our sportiest president. He played tennis growing up and baseball in college. And, throughout his life he was a maniacal competitor. (As he aged, he would compete against the grandkids to see who could fall asleep first.)
My favorite fact I learned about Bush during the research and writing of the chapter was that Bush actually met Babe Ruth in person less than a month before the Sultan of Swat died. Ruth was donating his memoirs to Yale and Bush was the captain of the Yale baseball team. There’s a great photo of Ruth ceremonially handing the memoir over to Bush. What a cool moment — along the lines of when a young Bill Clinton met JFK.
Who did the public see most clearly?
WOLF: So much of this is about perceptions. Jimmy Carter and Bush fought wimp images even though Carter was an avid fisherman and Bush was a good athlete. Kennedy is perceived to be an athlete even though he was hobbled by injury. Ford is perceived to be an oaf even though he’s the most accomplished athlete president. And so on. Of which president did the public have the most authentic perception?
CILLIZZA: I think Nixon. Nixon was an incredibly awkward guy — socially and athletically. He played football in high school and college but he was, literally, just cannon fodder for the better players.
And, he just sort of took it. According to his teammates — in high school and college — Nixon’s best attribute was that no matter how many times he got knocked down, he would always get up. Sound familiar?
Nixon also had a football coach in college he loved — Chief Newman — who was an outsider like him. The coach was Native American and, as a result couldn’t get a job coaching a bigger college team. So he was stuck at Whittier. Nixon really identified with Newman, and saw himself as someone who would always have to fight harder for any opportunity he got. (Nixon even kicked off his 1960 presidential campaign at the Whittier football field.)
I think the popular image of Nixon as sort of a strange guy who was always on the outside looking in is very much affirmed by his experience in sports. But what he learned in sports served him well in his political life — that it’s not about how many times you get knocked down, it’s about how many times you get up.
This is actually quite important
WOLF: You document lot of consequential presidential moments revolving around sports — George W. Bush on the World Series mound after 9/11, Carter and the Olympic boycott. How important is it for a president to take sports seriously?
CILLIZZA: Very — and I am not just saying that because I want people to buy the book!
Sports — whether playing them or spectating them — is a very common way that people interact with their world. And politics is the business of understanding people — what they care about, what motivates them, what they live for.
You can’t do that and you just ignore the impact of sports on our daily lives. For lots and lots of people, their week revolves around watching their favorite football team on Sunday. Or going to a baseball game once a month.
Understanding that motivation is a way to connect with people. To say ‘I get your life’ — which is, at root, what all politicians are trying to do.
Even LBJ, who couldn’t have cared less about sports, understood how much sports mattered. When he was a young senator trying to accrue power, he realized that Richard Russell, the Senate majority leader, a) loved baseball and b) was very much a loner. Suddenly LBJ developed an interest in baseball — and the two men would go to tons of games together. Russell became LBJ’s mentor — and a hugely powerful ally.
The end of the era of the college athlete president
WOLF: Most of the modern presidents before Bill Clinton played sports, either football or baseball, in college, although only Gerald Ford did it at a high level. Today college sports seem like the stuff of elite athletes, not politicians. What do you take from that shift?
CILLIZZA: That’s a really interesting observation.
In some ways, it feels like military service. There was once a time when virtually everyone who ran for president — or any other office — had served. It was almost a necessity. Now, fewer and fewer politicians have served in the military.
I don’t know why so many fewer politicians — and presidents — now play sports in college. Biden was supposed to play football at the University of Delaware but his grades were too bad his freshman year, By his junior year, he had met the woman who would become his first wife — and he had other priorities. Trump actually did play a sport in college — squash at Fordham — but doesn’t ever talk about it. (Trump was also a pretty good high school baseball player although not as good as he claims to be. Surprise surprise surprise.) Obama played basketball throughout his young life and college years but was never good enough to play for any of the places he went to school. George W. Bush was a decent natural athlete but it wasn’t until later in his life — when he found endurance sports — that he came into his own. Bill Clinton was a pretty terrible athlete although he did claim to have dunked a basketball in a childhood CYO game. There are arguably some sports and exercise fads to be considered in this book.
Prepare for the ‘pickleball voter’
WOLF: Nixon bowled. Reagan pumped iron. Carter, Clinton and Bush jogged. What’s the next sport or exercise phenomenon you expect to see in the White House?
For real. In the Biden chapter of the book, I wrote a whole section on pickleball and the pickleball voter. (Older, affluent folks.) I think the next president — maybe after the likely Trump-Biden race in 2024 — will be a pickleball player. Can’t you see Ron DeSantis or Gavin Newsom talking about the aerobic benefits of pickleball and having strategic conversations about not going in the “kitchen” (look it up!)
Who would you golf with?
WOLF: The tie that binds all these presidents, Democrat and Republican, is golf. If you could play one round of golf with one president, living or dead, who would it be and why?
I think Eisenhower actually. He wasn’t the best golfer ever to be president — that was probably JFK — but he played the most. And Ike’s golfing was part and parcel of showing America, post World War II, what they could and should do with their new suburban lifestyle and the free time they found they had. Plus, I think it would be amazing to hear Ike’s war stories as we went around the links.
Fun Ike fact: He was a bridge addict. He LOVED the game and played it all the time. Any number of people have written that bridge approximated the strategy required in war in a way that no other game can. For Eisenhower, it calmed him — and he often played on the eve of major missions during World War II.