These days, sports serve to soften our presidential candidates, to make them seem human when the evidence indicates otherwise. Usually it’s a rooting interest that their image-minders play up: What could be more populist (in the benign sense) than living and dying with a pro or college team? But in the process, aspiring leaders run the risk of looking like phonies—John Kerry will never live down praising his favorite player from the 2004 Red Sox, “Manny Ortez”—or worse, obsessives. Nixon’s discussion of the greatest ballplayers of all time may have been the least raving snippet of all those captured on the White House tapes, and yet.
Sports’ greater recent marginalization in the American presidency, though, has come by way of the scant athletic résumés of the men who have occupied the office. Oh, sure, Clinton and Obama love to golf, and Jimmy Carter used to jog up a storm, and Trump once claimed to have been the best baseball player in New York state, who decided not to turn pro because “there was no real money in it.” But George H.W. Bush, who died on Friday at age 94, was and perhaps will forever be the last consummate sportsman to serve as president.
From his earliest days through his final ones, athletic pursuits entranced and shaped the 41st President. He sailed; he played tennis, soccer, and baseball; he ran; he golfed; he fished; he pitched horseshoes; he skydived on his round-number birthdays from age 75 onward. He had been a fixture at Houston Astros games more or less since their inception; he claimed to have coined the phrase “You da man!” in praising Rusty Staub after a home run. While vice president, he rapped a ground-ball single off Milt Pappas in an old-timers’ game.
On the diamond, Bush was never much more than a singles hitter, with just 14 extra-base hits over the two seasons in which his Yale Bulldogs made the finals of the first- and second-ever College World Series, losing both times. Like his idol Lou Gehrig, he played a sure-handed first base, but where Gehrig and Bush’s father, Prescott—a former Yale star and eventually a U.S. Senator from Connecticut—had occupied cleanup spots, Bush tended to hit seventh or eighth. “Second cleanup,” he called it.
That modesty only partially obscured the zeal for competition bequeathed to young Poppy (as he was known back then) by his mother, Dorothy Walker Bush. Her father, George Herbert Walker, had been president of the U.S. Golf Association, but Dorothy’s preferred game was tennis. Family lore had it that she finished a match despite breaking her wrist during it. (And once, while playing a family softball game at Kennebunkport, she held off on delivering one of her sons, Prescott Jr., until she had rounded the bases after homering.)
In 1940, when George was 16, his mother offered $5, about $90 in today’s money, to any of her sons who could beat her in a tennis match. Poppy won. His younger brother Jonathan told SI in 1988 that “it was a brutal match, both of them wringing wet when they finished.” The young Bushes had all been rooting for their brother.
It wasn’t that Poppy had such great natural ability—a questionnaire the family filled out when he was applying to Andover for high school noted that he “hasn’t gotten quite the strength he should have for his size”—but that he was endlessly willing to outwork his peers without calling attention to it, meaning that he could still be underestimated. Accordingly, despite his occasional woes with the bat, he captained his senior-year baseball teams at both Andover and Yale.
Bush told his biographer Jon Meacham, “You have goals and you want to meet them, but without letting it show through in everyday life.” (Meacham relays one story about Poppy tricking another brother of his, Bucky, into believing that he had effortlessly mastered a marble maze Bucky had gotten as a Christmas present. In actuality Poppy had spent hours preparing.) Again, his hero was Gehrig, not Babe Ruth: “Nothing flashy, no hot-dogging, the ideal sportsman.”
After the Navy, and after Yale, as he made his way down to Texas and then up in the world, he spent less time on baseball and more on tennis and golf, where his status brought him access to some of sports’ elites. He’d partner in doubles with Björn Borg, Pam Shriver, and Ivan Lendl—the latter turned him on to a protein shake—to play against his sons, because his backhand had withered with time. And though Prescott Bush had been considered one of Congress’s best golfers, George H.W. Bush had a dreadful problem on the greens. “He’d rather face Congress than a three-foot putt,” Ken Raynor, the pro at the Bushes’ golf club in Kennebunkport, told SI in 1988. “Sometimes on the green with the ball near the pin he calls out, ‘In respect for the high office of the Vice Presidency, isn’t that putt good?’”
Once Bush was elected President, he installed a horseshoe court at the White House. The game was his preferred method of outreach to congressional Democrats, journalists, pre-politics Arnold Schwarzenegger, and even Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who threw a perfect ringer on his first try at the game during a 1990 visit to Camp David. Whatever the game, Bush was known for his good humor and his indefatigability. Even when he lost, he’d take pride in having tired out his opponent as he went off to play another game.
Today, there’s enough deserved criticism of the amorality and greed built into pro and big-time college sports—to say nothing of the same phenomena insinuating themselves in youth sports—that it is sometimes hard to remember why exactly these games have held such sway over us for so long. But amateur athletics, when practiced responsibly, breed courage, collegiality, perseverance, a drive for excellence, and a respect for fairness, all values we should wish to see in ourselves.
The early obituaries were divided as to whether Bush had carried those values with him into Congress, the CIA, the Vice Presidency, the White House and his post-Presidency, or whether, out of political expediency, he had checked them at the door. Historians and the American public will have months and years to ponder, among other questions, whether his grace in defeat in 1992 at all mitigated the ruthlessness he displayed in victory in 1988. For all we celebrate about the character-building powers of sports, their cruelest lesson—winning matters most—can stick, too.
For now, though, Bush will be cheered for demonstrating a good sportsmanship that among most politicians has long since hit the showers. It’s not much, but it’s not nothing, either.