x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Obama's hidden handicap

Apparently not wanting to be associated with country club elitism, Barack Obama keeps the press well away when he tees off.

WASHINGTON // During the presidential campaign, video footage of Barack Obama sinking a jump shot in front of cheering US troops provided a striking contrast to his ageing Republican rival, John McCain. Images of the youthful Democratic candidate on the basketball court and stories of his pickup games were an effective selling point for his strategists, who wanted to portray their candidate as the spokesman for a new generation.
But since moving to the White House, and despite having a basketball court installed there, the 44th president has shown an affinity for a more traditional sport, albeit one that has garnered far less media attention: golf. Despite a demanding schedule that includes dealing with two wars, an economic crisis and healthcare reform, Mr Obama has set aside several hours on most Sundays this summer - and every Sunday in September - for some personal time on the golf course.
It is hardly a new hobby for a commander-in-chief. Just about every president in the modern era, except Jimmy Carter, played the sport, and some did so religiously. Golf is the rare sport, according to Don Van Natta Jr, author of the First Off the Tee: Presidential Hackers, Duffers and Cheaters From Taft to Bush, that can offer the world's most powerful leaders a modicum of privacy. "They love golf because they are able to be outside and get away from the press and the public," he said. "It may be the only sort of outdoor sanctuary that they have that is far removed from any scrutiny."
That appears to be especially true for Mr Obama, who despite appearing in public more than any other president, prefers to keep his golf game extraordinarily private. Whereas many of his predecessors allowed reporters to watch them tee off, or to greet them at the 18th green, Mr Obama's press pool is kept far from the action. As one pool reporter, Kenneth Bazinet of the New York Daily News, wrote of one of Mr Obama's recent Sunday golf outings: "We didn't see any of it."
Some have speculated that such secrecy is a way for Mr Obama to hide that he is not a good golfer. After all, the president is a newcomer to the sport, having picked it up in the late 1990s as a relaxing alternative to basketball. But Catherine Lewis, a history professor at Kennesaw State University in Georgia and author of a book on golf and Dwight Eisenhower, who installed a putting green on the White House lawn, believes the secrecy is very much a political calculation.
"Golf has been associated in America with sort of the country club set, elitism, with being out of touch with the common man," Prof Lewis said, noting that the risk of being perceived as an elitist is heightened in times of recession. "In this economy being affiliated with golf would be, I think, sort of political suicide." Other presidents have gone to great lengths to hide their golfing habits. John F Kennedy, known as the most talented golfer-in-chief, was wary of being branded an elitist and banned photographers from snapping shots of him on the course. George W Bush stopped playing the game in the final years of his presidency for fear of sending the wrong message to families of soldiers in Iraq.
The White House press office declined to comment on Mr Obama's golf outings and few official details have been released. The president's handicap appears to be a closely guarded secret. What is known is that Mr Obama frequents two Washington-area courses: one at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland and the other at Fort Belvoir in Virginia - apparently eschewing the more highbrow confines of the Burning Tree Country Club, where many presidents have played. Mr Obama spends up to four hours or more at a time on a course, while press pool reporters from various news agencies are left behind at a food court hundreds of yards away.
His golf partners have included Joe Biden, the vice president, Robert Gibbs, his press secretary, Larry Summers, his chief economic adviser, and at least one reporter, Thomas Friedman of The New York Times. Mr Obama is accompanied on the course by an entourage of secret service agents - who often trail him in golf carts - and the ubiquitous military aide toting the "football", a briefcase containing launch codes for the country's nuclear weapons.
The secret service, as it turns out, has had plenty of practice guarding presidents on fairways and putting greens. In recent decades, golf has emerged as the favourite sport for White House occupants. So much so, in fact, that some have drawn parallels between the way a president plays golf and the way he runs the country. William Howard Taft, the first golfing president, was said to care more about the sport than he did about his duties as president, reflecting his laissez-faire approach to running the country.
Warren Harding, who presided over a corrupt administration in the 1920s, preferred to gamble and drink on the course, despite Prohibition. Bill Clinton was known to stretch the rules, moving the ball or not counting strokes, hoping to improve his score. As for the current president, his former golf buddy, James Clayborne Jr, an Illinois state senator, said there are two words to describe his game: "slow and steady".
"He just had a nice, slow, methodical swing," he said. "He is also very competitive." Another former golf partner, John Bouman, president of the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law in Chicago, said Mr Obama periodically engaged in a little trash talk, or the kind of "gamesmanship - that you might get in a pickup basketball game". Still, Mr Bouman said, one of the most noticeable aspects of Mr Obama's golf game, as in life, was his uniform calm.
"He patiently waited out the frustrating moments without exploding," he said. "He's very under control."
sstanek@thenational.ae