Using sport to bond with the voters

YOU’RE aware that they’re picking presidential candidates in America at the moment.

Of course you are. What you may not know is the role sport plays in presidential politics in the US, and that sometimes candidates’ sporting interests have been more informative than they’d like.

Arch-schemer Lyndon Johnson masterminded his route to the White House by befriending a powerful Senator, Richard Russell.

How? Russell was a lonely figure who liked baseball, so Johnson developed an interest in the sport, the two soon started going together to Washington Senators games and Lyndon started ascending the greasy pole.

Johnson’s successor Richard Nixon said that the day he turned in his high school football uniform was one of the saddest days in his life. He also said if he could live his life over again, he would devote it to writing about sports. Which tells you a) about Richard Nixon, and b) about sportswriting.

The man who took over from Nixon, Gerald Ford, was a star football player with the University of Michigan; his image as an amiable makeweight was reinforced when he was filmed teeing off — into the gallery, hitting spectators.

Ronald Reagan’s folksy speaking style first came to light as a radio sportscaster covering games from a booth in Des Moines, Iowa.

The broadcasts were all the more remarkable as his lively, play-by-play descriptions were based on telegraph reports of the games being delivered to the booth; good preparation for those “Evil Empire” speeches...

And Bill Clinton’s love of golf is often cited as evidence of a loose attitude to the truth; the argument was that anyone with such a relaxed attitude to accurate scoring on the greens couldn’t be trusted...

THIS year’s contenders?

Barack Obama played for his high school team, who were state champions. He likes golf but that clearly isn’t as much of a game of the people as the old hoops, so you don’t hear about it. For Hillary Clinton, becoming Senator for New York forced her to declare her support for the local baseball team, the Yankees. Having already declared her undying love for the Chicago Cubs, this inconsistency was cited as proof of her reluctance to do or say anything unpopular.

That was Republican hopeful Rudy Giuliani’s attitude when mocking her indecision.

Then Giuliani made a huge mistake last October in Boston; the New Yorker said he’d support the local team in the World Series.

His words “I’m rooting for the Red Sox,” didn’t go down well in the Big Apple, where Giuliani has seats next to the home dugout in Yankee Stadium and the Sox are, well, hated. Some felt he was behaving just like Hillary Clinton.

By contrast, his party colleague Mitt Romney depicted himself as in for the long haul, describing his family and himself as “true suffering Red Sox fans” who’d waited 87 long years for Boston to win the World Series.

Unfortunately for Romney, every true Red Sox fan knows the correct figure is 86 years without a World Series, not 87; that’s a mistake no true suffering fan would make.

Sport made Romney, incidentally. He took over the scandal-ridden 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City and turned it into a success. The day after the Olympics, 200 supporters came to his home and encouraged him to enter public service. Eight months later he was Governor of Massachusetts.

Other Republican candidates include Mike Huckabee, whose website attests to his successful completion of four marathons — an obvious metaphor for the long slog of an election campaign.

Are we making too much of what sport reveals about politicians? Well, think on this: down-home Texan George W Bush played that most un-American game, rugby, at Yale.

However, he soon learned his lesson: Bush Junior bought shares in the Texas Rangers baseball franchise in April 1989 and served as managing general partner for five years.

He regularly sat in the stands with the regular fans; from there he moved to Governor of Texas, then President.

A far cry from his very first sporting accomplishment: head cheerleader at his high school, Andover.


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