Among The Games Presidents Play, There's Also Golf House Speaker John Boehner is joining President Obama for 18 holes on Saturday in a much anticipated "golf summit." Horse racing may be the "sport of kings," but when it comes to U.S. presidents, they prefer to tee off.
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Among The Games Presidents Play, There's Also Golf

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Among The Games Presidents Play, There's Also Golf

Among The Games Presidents Play, There's Also Golf

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

It's a sunny weekend in Washington D.C.; chances are a motorcade will leave the White House for the golf course.

President Obama typically golfs with the same small circle of friends and aides. One of his rules for a day on the links is no talking politics. Well, that's gonna change today, because House Speaker John Boehner is joining President Obama for 18 holes.

Vice President Biden and Republican Governor John Kasich of Ohio will also join the foursome. NPR's Ari Shapiro reports on the much anticipated golf summit.

ARI SHAPIRO: Horse racing has been called the sport of kings. If you're looking for a sport of presidents, golf is a good nominee.

Don Van Natta, Jr. is a New York Times correspondent who wrote the book, "First Off the Tee" about presidential golfers.

Mr. DON VAN NATTA, JR. (Investigative Reporter, The New York Times; Author, "First Off the Tee"): It is the most popular sport that presidents play. Fifteen of the last 18 American presidents were golfers, starting with William Howard Taft.

SHAPIRO: Why? What is it about the game?

Mr. VAN NATTA: I think presidents love the camaraderie that they find out on the links. They also like the fact that they can leave the press and the public behind on the first tee, and they don't have to see them again until the 18th green.

SHAPIRO: Occasionally a president does not leave the press behind, sometimes with disastrous results.

President George W. Bush no doubt wishes he could take a mulligan on this moment from 2002, after a suicide bombing in Israel.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: I call upon all nations to do everything they can to stop these terrorist killers. Thank you. Now watch this drive.

SHAPIRO: Years later, Bush told an interviewer that he gave up golf during his presidency. He said during a war it sends the wrong signal.

President Obama has not had the same concern. Still, Van Natta says, this president is less avid on the links than other wartime commanders in chief.

Mr. VAN NATTA: He's not as devoted a golfer as Eisenhower or Woodrow Wilson, actually, was the most prolific golfer, who played nearly every day on doctor's orders.

SHAPIRO: Most presidents used golf for escape. One exception was Lyndon Johnson. He had no interest in the sport, but his aides suggested inviting senators out to the course to lobby them on the Civil Rights Act. The bill passed, showing that business can get done on the links, even though many golf courses remained segregated for years.

Now all these decades later, a black president and a white speaker of the House are meeting for a friendly game. There's not much suspense about who will win. House Speaker Boehner, with his 8 handicap, made that clear during a "60 Minutes" interview with Lesley Stahl in December.

Ms. LESLEY STAHL ("60 Minutes"): And you're a much better golfer than he is, right?

Representative JOHN BOEHNER (R-OH, Speaker of the House): He understands that.

SHAPIRO: Both sides have been downplaying the significance of today's game. Boehner says it's mostly about building a relationship.

Rep. BOEHNER: Playing golf with someone is a great way to really get to know someone. You start trying to hit that little white ball you can't be somebody that you're not, because all of you shows up.

SHAPIRO: Golf historian Van Natta says you can learn a lot about a president by the way he plays golf.

Mr. VAN NATTA: Warren Harding, for instance, who was the caretaker of the most corrupt administration in American history, drank on the golf course during Prohibition and gambled on every swing.

Mr. GEORGE FULLER (Editor, writer, photographer): There's an old saying: You learn more about a guy playing 18 holes of golf with him than you do sitting across the desk from him for 18 years.

SHAPIRO: This is how golf expert George Fuller puts it. He's written eight books about the sport.

Mr. FULLER: You're not necessarily arguing positions. You're just simply saying, hey, what kind of club do you think I ought to hit here, John? Oh, Barack, that's a 4-iron, sir.

SHAPIRO: White House spokesman Jay Carney set modest goals for this meeting.

Mr. JAY CARNEY (White House Spokesman): Just resolve all their differences. Eighteen holes.

SHAPIRO: More seriously, he said, a day like this certainly cannot hurt the chances of bipartisan cooperation unless someone wins really big.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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