With a few notable exceptions, American Presidents have not been gung-ho sportsmen while in office. In more recent memory, Calvin Coolidge waded trout streams, although rather improbably attired in a high starched collar; Ike was a demon golfer; John Kennedy was a dedicated sailor and a touch-football player of note—exercising his Presidential prerogative, he usually was the quarterback; and Gerald Ford stem-turned doggedly down the ski slopes.
In a quiet and inconspicuous way, Jimmy Carter is proving to be a bit of an all-round sportsman in his own right. Although he was a member of the Naval Academy's plebe cross-country team 35 years ago, winning his class numerals, he didn't run again until about two months ago, when he started jogging from two to four miles almost every day. Carter is not alone out there, of course; it has been estimated that 25 million Americans have become joggers recently. You would think they were all there on the White House grounds when the President trots out for his daily workout, so abundant are the Secret Service agents who shadow him from Ionic pillar to Southwest Gate post. So much for the loneliness of the long-distance runner.
Carter is 54 and slightly stooped, but appears remarkably fit and trim at 5'9½", 155 pounds. "I never have been a really good athlete," Carter said, in a recent interview with SPORTS ILLUSTRATED in the Oval Office, "but I stay in good shape, watch my weight and take a lot of exercise. I really believe that other than the solitude of hunting and fishing, the most beneficial sport to me is running. It's not time-consuming. I can go out and run, for me, a fairly fast two miles in about 15 minutes, or run three miles in 25 minutes, or take a slower pace—10 minutes to a mile—and run seven miles. Then I can come back in and go back to work shortly.
"I would say, during my first 20 or 21 months up here I probably played tennis more than any other single thing. I still play two or three times a week when it's not too cold, but I run almost every day."
December 18, 1978
Carter created a mild stir among his staff early in his Administration by personally attending to the schedule of the White House tennis court, something his aides now say he did only to avoid embarrassing staff members who might be on the court when the President showed up for a quick set with, say, Hamilton Jordan or Zbigniew Brzezinski. As a rule, Carter prefers to play doubles; he is a cutthroat player at the net and dislikes to lose. "I generally pick partners so that I can win about half the time," he said. "Without criticizing my partners, I would have to say that their ability is not outstanding." And he laughed.
Carter's interest in tennis dates back to his boyhood on the family farm in Archery, Ga. His father was such an avid player that he took the unusual step—for those times and that place—of building a tennis court right next to the Carter home. It was during that same period that young Jimmy Carter learned to hunt and to fish, spending summer nights on the banks of the Choctawhatchee and Kinchafoonee creeks, "catching and cooking catfish and eels when the water was rising from heavy rains," according to his autobiography Why Not the Best?
"In 1972 when I was Governor I began fly-fishing," Carter recalled in the Oval Office, "and now I find that is by far the most enjoyable way to fish. However, at home we have a small pond where we generally fish with just a cane pole. Sometimes we do bait casting, with black worms, fishing the bottom for bass. It used to be that I could just pick up a fishing pole and go down to the creek—I have a couple of canoes—where I could go fishing, and it was no big deal. But now you have the Secret Service and the news people tagging along, just a whole entourage when you go." Carter reflected on this for a moment, as if recollecting the tranquil hours he spent on the water.
"But the main sport that I liked," he said, brightening, "perhaps more than any other, while I was Governor, was white-water canoeing and kayaking. I haven't been able to do that since I've been President. [The President obviously discounted August's rubber-raft expedition down the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho. The water was certainly roiling in spots, but the Carters were more passengers than white-water adventurers.] When I left the governorship I traded my kayak in on a second canoe, but kayaking was one sport I really liked. My wife did also; on white water I don't think I ever went down a river in a canoe that she didn't go. She never did go in the kayak, but she's a better fisherman than I am. She has her own fly-fishing outfit."
The President also enjoys skeet shooting: indeed, he has been something of a marksman since the day he shot his sister Gloria in the rear end with a BB gun for throwing a wrench at him. "I've always liked hunting," Carter said. "Before I was elected Governor I had bird dogs of my own and went hunting for quail a good bit. That has been restricted pretty much, but I still go hunting several times a year when I'm at home on my own farm."
One of the sports Carter has had to give up since he came to Washington is basketball; the White House doesn't have a court of its own. "We had a basketball goal and a little place just outside the garage area of the Governor's Mansion," said Carter. "We played a good bit. My son Jack was a good basketball player." Carter himself was a forward on the varsity basketball team at Plains High School and went on to play intramural ball at Georgia Southwestern, a junior college that had no intercollegiate sports program. "As a matter of fact," he said, "without bragging, I made the all-star team that year. I was fast, but I was small for my age. About the only time I was ever successful in basketball was when we ran a fast break.
"The high school I attended was tiny—I think I had 24 in my graduating class—so we didn't have football. Basketball is the No. 1 sport down there for small schools. Then in the spring, there was baseball, but generally I didn't play on the baseball team." Later, at Georgia Tech, Carter tried out for the 100-yard dash and the high-jump, but he never made the track team. "When I was a child," Carter says, "I built a pole-vaulting pit in my backyard and we used to high-jump and pole-vault. Obviously, as a child I had dreams of someday being a famous athlete, but that never did happen."
Since he became President, Carter says he has seldom been able to find the time to watch a football game from beginning to end, in person or on television, though he did attend the Washington Redskins Monday night win over Dallas on Oct. 2. Does the President have an opinion about the Mouth of the NFL, Howard Cosell? "Not that I would like to express publicly," Carter said. "The first time I ever met Howard Cosell personally, I went out to San Francisco when the Atlanta Falcons played the 49ers. Rankin Smith owns the Falcons, and I went out with him on his plane and met Howard Cosell. There was a very unpleasant argument. I wasn't involved in it, I was just a spectator."
Carter tends to avoid most spectator sports, finding them too sedentary for his taste, but confesses that he could watch stock-car racing almost endlessly. "I used to go out to the Atlanta Speedway and ride in the pace car and be with the drivers during the preliminary review of the racing rules," he said. "Rosalynn and I have both been stock-car-racing fans since before Jeffrey [Carter's youngest son] was born, 25 years or more."
The President's affection for stock-car racing's interminable progression of lap upon lap may seem curious to a non-Southerner, but there is nothing boring about it to him. "That could be the case unless you had grown up with it and knew the racers and the pit crews and had studied the techniques of racing," Carter said.
"We used to take off from Plains, even when I didn't have much money, and drive to Sebring for the sports-car races. And the first year the Daytona Speedway was in operation , we were there. We went down on a train from Americus, Georgia with two other couples. I remember that Richard Petty's father—I believe his name is Lee—and a guy named Beauchamp tied in the first race at Daytona. That was on a Sunday and we didn't know until Wednesday who had won. I believe Bill France, who owns Daytona—I think he just collected all kinds of photographs that people had taken of the finish with hand-held cameras. They had to get those films developed and analyze them before they could tell who won."
Carter has long been a popular figure among the drivers and crews at races. "They gave me good, friendly political support when I ran for President, whether they were Republicans or Democrats," he said. "Cale Yarborough had been a Republican, you know, when he was a county official in South Carolina. Now he has become a Democrat. And this is not the only progress he has made.
"Recently we had the stock-car racers here at the White House, but unfortunately—we had planned it for months—it happened to fall the last weekend of the Camp David Summit meeting, and I had to miss being with them."
Carter also swims, bowls regularly (he averages about 160) and is planning to take up cross-country skiing this winter at Camp David. But his most publicly indulged sporting passion since he began seeking the Presidency undoubtedly has been Softball.
The games began in the '76 campaign, while the Carter camp and the national press corps were in Plains following the Democratic Convention. As a rule, Carter pitched for a team of unarmed Secret Service agents, against a media team called the News Twisters. Carter's team wore T shirts that proclaimed them NEWS MAKERS, while the media people adopted as their slogan THE GRIN WILL NOT WIN.
"His team was made up of a bunch of bionic Secret Service men," says Rick Kaplan, an associate producer for the CBS Evening News, "while our squad consisted of a bunch of guys who were great athletes in their day, but their day had long since passed. To give you an idea how stacked the deck was in his favor, their shortstop had once played Triple A ball, and all the Secret Service guys were terrified that if they messed up they might end up stationed in Ohio." What does "The Grin" have to say about all this? "That's just propaganda," sniffed Carter.
"In the beginning," says Kaplan. "Carter used to come out in denim cut-offs, black socks and tennis shoes. But we soon found out that the black socks were just a reflection of his taste in clothes, not his ability. He's very competitive, of course, so what started out to be a friendly game quickly became deadly serious. In the very first game we ever played, Carter's team jumped out to something like a 10-0 lead in the first inning. As we were walking off the field I passed him on his way to the pitcher's mound. He looked at me, smiled and said, 'What's the score. Rick?" Another time I hit four home runs off him in one game. Later he walked up to me and said, 'I just want you to know I let you hit the home runs because your family was watching.' "
"He was his team's self-appointed captain," says Curtis Wilkie, White House correspondent for The Boston Globe, "and he took it all very seriously. He's a pretty damned good player; he always knew immediately which base to throw to to make a force play.
"One time I was playing third base on Carter's team," adds Wilkie, "and someone hit a pop fly in my direction. It was well out of my range, but I gave it a little chase anyway. When I got back to third base, he was standing there staring at me, and he said, 'You should have had that one, Curtis.' I never knew for sure whether he was serious or not."
Kaplan, however, entertains no such doubts. "Carter really is a hell of an athlete," he says admiringly. "And he plays for keeps."