Inevitably, perhaps, in view of what has been transpiring on the White House lawn, at Burning Tree and in Augusta, Ga. these last seven years, the first clear-cut issue of the 1960 presidential campaign has turned out to be golf. That's right, golf.
The battle lines were drawn at a Democratic dinner in Washington when Harry Truman, a onetime White House tenant who took his exercise on the sidewalks of Pennsylvania Avenue, told a half-dozen potential Presidents and their backers that the Democrats' most urgent mission is to elect a chief executive who will do something "besides run around a golf course."
Truman's crack did not seem to perturb the President; he got in several rounds of golf in Palm Springs, Calif. Does Ike's golf perturb the voters?
It was way back in May 1899 that a little old lady of stern disposition and uncertain politics wrote the editor of the Boston Record hoping he could quell the disquieting rumor that President McKinley "had been seen playing golf." Since her time, however, the association of the White House with one or another popular national sport has come to be considered a political asset rather than a liability.
Presidents Taft, Wilson and Harding were all golfers. Coolidge and Hoover were dedicated fly-fishermen. F.D.R. was an ardent sailor (and, before his polio, an occasional golfer). Of all the 20th-century Presidents, Harry Truman was the only one who got all the exercise he wanted just by walking and talking. Not that Mr. Truman is necessarily averse to games. He is known to have enjoyed sitting down at a table set with cards, chips and bourbon, a pleasure that some American voters consider earned by 18 holes.
With all this clearly in mind, Richard Nixon last week sat down at a dinner, and his hosts were not politicians but an array of some of the nation's top golf writers and some of the greatest names in the game, including Bob Jones and Francis Ouimet.
"I really got the golf bug," said Candidate Nixon, "long before I started playing, thanks to you, the golf writers." He hit his first golf ball when he was 39. "I would also like to make an award to the golf pros, mainly the club pros," the Vice-President went on. "I can tell you I'll never accuse any of them of playing 'customer golf.' I played a round with Sam Snead recently at Greenbrier. We were doing all right until Snead birdied the 18th. When Sam's partner, a Texan, asked him, 'Sam, why didn't you let the Vice-President win that one?' Snead answered, 'Why, man, I needed that money!' "
"The thing I admire most about Bob Jones," said Nixon, "is that he was such a fierce competitor. I think it is healthy not to want to lose. Bob Jones hates to lose. I hate to lose—in golf or anything else."
Harry Truman, for that matter, has never liked losing either, but we have a hunch he's on the losing side of the golf issue. It's not just that 5 million adult Americans play golf but so many other fives and tens of millions of Americans play one game or another.
Some pretty good cartoons and gags sprang from Ike's golf early in his presidency. But after seven years the gag is beginning to wear pretty thin. We doubt whether anybody today begrudges any President, whether Democrat or Republican, his athletic pastimes.
As a matter of fact, Richard Nixon may even have improved on the popular appeal of presidential golf. Unlike Ike, who shoots in the mid-80s, Nixon shoots in the mid-90s. There are a lot more voters up there. If the Democrats wanted to play really rough, they might start a rumor that Nixon is actually a dozen strokes better than he lets on. That might turn the duffer vote against him—unless of course his opponent turns out to be Senator Stu Symington who, embarrassingly enough, shoots in the 70s.