In 27 years at Sports Illustrated, Curry Kirkpatrick primarily covered college basketball and tennis, and while the peripatetic Kirkpatrick might not have lasted long as a player on the hardwood, he could hold his own on the other court. He had played tennis in high school in upstate New York and continued to compete in local tournaments near his home in Hilton Head, S.C., for years. So when the chance came to do a story about playing sports with then-President George H.W. Bush, Kirkpatrick was eager to get on the court with the leader of the free world.
"I'm not great, but I'm pretty good," he says. "I can play."
So it was that during a two-day visit to Kennebunkport, Maine, in the summer of 1991, Kirkpatrick played with and against the president in tennis and horseshoes while watching him golf and fish. Alas, there was no basketball or baseball, which Bush had famously played for Yale after returning from service in World War II, but there was plenty of trash-talking by and toward the commander-in-chief.
I spoke with Kirkpatrick recently about his brush with the presidency, why Saddam Hussein forced the story to hold for a year and the cover that never was.
SI: It’s not often you get to hang out with the President of the United States for a couple days. How did it happen for you?
KIRKPATRICK: I had a friend, who ironically was a Jerry Tarkanian confidante, named Sid Rogich. He was a Las Vegas PR guy and he also was a big political operative in the state of Nevada for the first President Bush. Bush hired him to come to the White House and kind of work as an image advisor.
I knew him, so I had this idea not just to play tennis but to spend a couple days with the president up in Kennebunkport, because he played all these sports up there. So I called Sid and suggested this thing, and I also asked the magazine, which had said sure. Sid said, “The president says it’s OK come up to Kennebunkport and spend a couple days and hang out with him. He plays golf and tennis, he does horseshoes and fishing. It’s non-stop.”
So he set up a meeting where I was going to come talk to Bush in the Oval Office before he went on vacation. This was in August of 1990. I said, "How much time will I get?" and they said, "About 20 minutes, 30 tops, the president is pretty busy."
On the day I went there, Bush was scheduled to meet with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of England, Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and the NATO commander. They told me this before I went there. My session was going to be about telling Bush what I was going to do up there and what I was going to ask him. I had assured him it would be all about sports and his career as a sportsman.
SI: How much time did you wind up getting with him?
KIRKPATRICK: This is an interesting aspect I’d never talked about. I had just done a book with [former N.C. State basketball coach] Jim Valvano, and Valvano's agent was Art Kaminsky, who was a big sports agent at the time. So I had gotten to know Art. I was in Art’s office one day, and he knew that I was going to go see the president. It turned out Kaminsky was a big collector of TIME magazine covers over the years where he’d gotten the subjects to autograph the covers for him.
He says, “Would you do me a favor?” He had this cover of the presidential and vice presidential candidates in the ’84 campaign, and it was this cartoon of them as jockeys. All the other contenders had signed it except Bush. He says, “Would you mind taking this to the White House and getting Bush to sign it?”
I thought, “What?!” but I said I’d try. He also had Bush’s Yale yearbook, because I think Art was a Yale guy. He said, “Why don’t you take the yearbook and see if he’ll sign this too?” He was like a groupie. I thought this was ridiculous but then I thought, OK maybe this will be a good in with Bush and he’ll think this is cool.
So I go to the Oval Office that day -- I’d never even been to the White House, and it’s very cool to do this, I gotta tell you -- and it’s huge. And there he is, over at the desk. He comes over and shakes my hand. In those days Dana Carvey was doing Bush on Saturday Night Live, and my first thought was, This is not President Bush it's Dana Carvey.
SI: What did you think of the president before you met him?
KIRKPATRICK: He was very friendly, and everybody always thought that he was a great guy, and that he would have been a great president of his fraternity if not necessarily the United States. I sat in a chair by the desk and we really talked sports.
These aides kept coming in and trying to hurry things along. They’d say, “Mr. President, five minutes,” and come in and do it again. He kept shooing them out of there. He seemed so happy to be relaxing, talking about sports and Yale and Kennebunkport. He kept telling them it was no problem. I just got the feeling that he was postponing all the unenjoyable parts of his day. I’d been there a half hour already and finally one guy came in and said, “Mr. Gates is out here waiting.” That was Robert Gates, who later became Secretary of Defense and was at the time the nominee to be the head of the CIA.
At this point Bush takes me out in the back of the Oval Office where the public doesn’t go because he wants to show me his horseshoe pit. So as we get up I say to myself, This is time for the signings of the autographs. So I pull out the yearbook and the cover. He went nuts, he loved it. He says, “Oh sure I’ll sign this.”
Then he sees the yearbook and goes, “Oh my gosh.” He starts rifling through looking for the baseball team picture and he starts to tell me about every player on the team. He’s going on and on for 10 or 15 minutes. Then he signs that and we go out in the back and the aide keeps saying, “Mr. President, you’ve got to go.”
I ended up spending about 90 minutes with him. He told me some funny stuff. For instance, outside in the back there’s this indoor swimming pool and a horseshoe pit area. He says, “I don’t know what kind of player you are but we pitch our here all the time. Old Schwarzenegger came in here and we gave him a shoe and he broke the window over there.”
But this was four days after Iraq invaded Kuwait, so Bush’s vacation wound up being totally postponed. So that seemed like it would be it.
SI: How did you get back on his schedule?
KIRKPATRICK: The next spring Rogich calls me and says, “You want to try this again?” I thought, great.
I went up there to Maine in August and basically did the story. I thought we were going to get to play singles at tennis so I was training assiduously with a pro in Hilton Head, getting my game ready, and then we get up there and it was a doubles game. And he wanted to play with me because he found out from Chris Evert, who I once hit with, that I could really play.
SI: Did you play golf with him too?
KIRKPATRICK: I went out with him on the course, but I didn’t play because he already had a fivesome. I did make a hole-in-one at Merion one time, though. It was press day at the 1971 U.S. Open, the year Lee Trevino beat Jack Nicklaus in a playoff. I made it on this short par-3 on the eighth hole going up to the clubhouse, And I promptly retired from the game. My coverage of the Open that year consisted of me standing behind the eighth green protecting my lead the entire four days.
I actually rode around with Bush on the course even though I didn’t play that day. He really loves to play golf fast. He plays a round in about an hour and a half. Then we went out on his boat. That was great fun. He almost killed me because he has a couple Secret Service men in the boat, plus me and Gates. As he’s coming in he loves to turn real fast and see if he can knock guys down in the boat.
The I played doubles tennis with him against Marlin Fitzwater, his press guy, and this ringer he had come in who I’m surprised he didn’t play with. That guy’s name was Dorrance Smith, he used to be a producer on ABC and he was a real player.
SI: What did you think of the rest of the Bush family?
KIRKPATRICK: It was like a family gathering. Barbara was really cool. She’s the all-time trash talker of the bunch. She just destroyed me and my tennis game. She would kid me about being from Hilton Head, and say, “I know by your clothes you’re an elitist.” And then she mocked me for trying to one-up them by saying I knew Chris Evert better than they did.
George W. Bush wasn’t there. Jeb wasn’t there either. George P. – Jeb’s son and 41’s grandson – was there. He was 15 at the time, and now he’s an elected official in Texas. A woman from the White House medical corps and I beat George P. and the president in horseshoes.
SI: When did you write the story?
KIRKPATRICK: I stayed in an inn down the road from the house and I wrote it that weekend. Now, of course it was never a guarantee but it was understood that he was going to be on the cover. It was the middle of August, nothing’s going on. But that weekend this fat hillbilly from Arkansas, John Daly, comes out of nowhere to win the PGA Championship, and they put him on the cover instead of the President of the United States! They called me at home to tell me and you can imagine my consternation.
That’s probably one of the more famous covers that never ran. I have a print of the original that’s framed in my house. The top says “America’s Team, the Braves are back. “The cover says, “The Prez at Play.”
SI: That would have been a great cover.
KIRKPATRICK: I’m still stunned. I think of it now and I think, we had the president for two days and this unfettered access and we go with Daly.
I was afraid that Bush and Sid and the people who set this up would be really angry but they weren’t. It was a year before the 1992 election so he was probably already in campaign mode and probably didn’t want to publicly reveal any anger. I was more upset that they would be upset and that they would think not only SI but me personally had double crossed them. But Sid said the president wasn’t bothered by it.
SI: Did you send him the cover that almost ran?
KIRKPATRICK: We sent the cover to him for sure. The magazine bent over backward to send him stuff. By that time I was practically at the end of my SI ride, it was a year before I left. Ten years earlier I probably would have stormed the Time-Life Building and set off grenades, but I’d passed that point.
The final cover has a Bush inset in the top right corner saying "The Prez at Play," so at least it made the cover. Right above Daly’s belly.
SI: Did you hear from President Bush after it came out?
KIRKPATRICK: He signed a bunch of pictures and I got a note from him saying how much he enjoyed the visit. It was written by him in longhand on a little White House notepad.
SI: Did you ever talk to him again?
KIRKPATRICK: No, but his people sent me some awesome White House shirts.
SI: How do you like the story now?
KIRKPATRICK: It’s one of the more memorable ones, for sure. I love the fact that it was such a personal kind of vacation that he let me in on and that he just seemed a lot younger and looser, like a different guy than you would watch on TV. He and Barbara were trash-talking me during the horseshoes game. She’d say – because the horseshoe pit was right near the water – “Everybody get off the rocks, this guy’s ‘shoe is going in the ocean.” So when we won I called out: “Headline: Bush Gets Face Job.” And then immediately I thought, “What did I just say?” To my tremendous relief he burst out laughing.
SI: Did you think at all that it was a put-on for them to get good coverage?
KIRKPATRICK: No, I think he really is like that. I think Bush II is really like that too, out of the public eye. That was my impression. I just thought the whole thing was so neat, and as I look back now it was one of the more memorable things I ever did. At the time I didn’t affect me that way.
SI: Was it easy to write because of the access or difficult to write because of the subject?
KIRKPATRICK: It was easy. That surprised me too, because I did it chronologically. But initially I was nervous writing it because it was about the President of the United States. I remember sitting there writing it and saying to myself, “I’m not going to worry about this, I’m just going to write it the way I always do.” And I did.
SI: Did it change your opinion of him at all?
KIRKPATRICK: I didn’t go into it looking at him as a politician. I’m pretty much a liberal Democrat anyway. My family’s all Republican but I went the other way. He was fairly moderate for the time so I didn’t think about the politics of it.
SI: Did they ever bring it up?
KIRKPATRICK: It was never brought up, nobody ever asked me. He could have been Joe Blow from across the way for all I would know. It was just like a friend who had invited me for a weekend at the ocean. He got such joy out of everything -- the fishing, the boating -- he just got so into everything he was doing at the time. Everything else is going to hell everywhere in the world and to take two days . . . you would think that’s what these guys need to do, to take their minds off everything else.