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POTUS at Play

As President Obama catches some R&R on Martha’s Vineyard, a pictorial montage of 20th century presidents at play reveals how some of his predecessors enjoyed their down time.  It also provides a glimpse of how presidential sports create images of White House occupants.

Corpulent William Howard Taft’s physique was anything but athletic, but he began a long tradition of White House duffers, most famously Dwight Eisenhower.  Even the cardiac-challenged Ike, at that time our oldest incumbent president, could tackle the links without straining his damaged heart.  He spent so much time golfing that his successor, JFK, avoided being photographed too frequently on the Hyannis course to diminish comparisons with the grandfatherly Eisenhower.  Instead, sailing excursions emphasized Kennedy’s youth and “vigah,” as he said in his distinctive Boston accent. The Kennedy family’s active lifestyle also helped JFK downplay his back ailments and hide various other medical problems from the public.  Likewise, photos of FDR’s sailing expeditions, with him at the helm, distracted a pre-television era public from his disability.  Ronald Reagan, the oldest American president, sustained his rough-and-ready Hollywood cowboy persona by riding the trails at his California ranch.

            Fellow Republican Gerald Ford, a star center on the University of Michigan football team, may have been the most talented athlete to occupy the Oval Office.  Yet several well-publicized stumbles led media and comedians to portray him as a klutz.  Even schussing down the powder at Vail couldn’t undo Ford’s clumsy image.  Angling in a Blue Ridge Mountain stream, dressed in coat and tie, may have been the fashion for Herbert Hoover’s favorite recreation in the early 1930s, but Richard Nixon’s strolling along a California beach in wing-tips four decades later only highlighted his bizarrely formal personality.  Similarly, Bill Clinton’s propensity to take mulligans on the golf course seemed to represent his playing fast and loose with the rules of life.

            This summer the JFK Library opened an exhibit featuring photos and artifacts of the Kennedy family’s vacations on Cape Cod (http://www.jfklibrary.org/Exhibits/Special-Exhibits/Presidential-Getaway.aspx).  The public never resented the Kennedys’ Hyannis Port compound or the Bushes’ Kennebunkport estate.  Paradoxically, Americans claim to want a “common man” to inhabit the White House but are drawn to landed gentry when they vote in presidential elections.  The Kennedy Library’s display of the young president and his beguiling children frolicking at the Cape is all the more poignant for knowledge that JFK’s life would soon be cut short by an assassin’s bullet. 

            How will a future Obama Presidential Library portray the 44th president’s summer breaks on tony Martha’s Vineyard?  Will the contrast between his pricey digs there and the post-recession malaise expressed by many Americans in recent polls be too stark?  Is the similarity between Bush 43’s continuing his 2005 Texas vacation in the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and Obama’s escape to New England as the world erupts in violence too obvious?  Let’s hope the president isn’t losing sleep over these questions.  His graying hair indicates that he needs all the rest and relaxation he can manage before the next inevitable crisis.

 

Barbara A. Perry is a senior fellow at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center and co-chair of the Presidential Oral History Program there.

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