Showdown in the Pits

December 26, 1988

Barbara Bush said, "you'll have to wear a cowboy hat. No one with any self-respect plays horseshoes without a cowboy hat." She rummaged around in a closet just inside the front door of the Vice-President's official residence in Washington. On a top shelf sat an assortment of George Bush's hats. I tried on a few of the Western variety. His hat size is a lot larger than mine, so the hats tended to slide down my forehead nearly to my eyes. Was I being handicapped before going out to the horseshoe pits?

"These hats all seem to be the same size," I remarked, a somewhat lunatic observation because it suggested surprise that my host's head measurements don't vary.

I finally picked a tall-crowned model with the President-elect's name stamped in gold on the inside. I wore it out to the horseshoe pit at a curious, rakish angle so that I could see where I was going.

The Vice-President was waiting there with his oldest son, George Jr., who would also be playing. Two George Bushes to contend with! The President-elect stared briefly at my hat. His was decorated with a braided Indian cord that supplemented the hatband. He held out some horseshoes.

"You got a choice," he said. "The drop-forged eight or the 10."

"I'll take the...ah."

The President-elect laughed. He looked down at the horseshoes, hefting them to judge their weight. "I don't know the difference myself," he said. "They tell me the harder the metal the more it tends to be rejected by the stake."

Then he explained the rules—one point for the shoe closest to the stake and three for a ringer; the winner would be the first among us to reach 15. We took some practice throws. I threw my shoes so that they revolved, parallel to the ground, toward the opposite stake. This somewhat startled the President-elect since that is the style (though I was unaware) used by most topflight pitchers.

"Hey, what have we got here?" he asked. He prefers to hold the shoe at its closed end and toss it so that it turns once, ass over teakettle, as it goes down the pitch.

"You played this game before?"

"Not for 30 years," I said truthfully.

The game began. The two Bushes were supported loudly by the President-elect's granddaughter Jenna, 7, who sat at pit-side bundled up in a bright orange parka. There was considerable chatter during play—needling and a plethora of homegrown expressions, such as "power outage" for a halfhearted toss, "SDI" for a throw with a higher arc than usual and "it's an ugly pit" for those times when no one's shoe was close to the stake. Once, when it was impossible to tell which of two shoes had landed closer, the President-elect shouted, "The tool! Get the tool!"—a request that was echoed by those standing around watching.

The tool, which George Jr. fetched from the gardening shed, turned out to be oversized navigator's dividers. The President-elect knelt in the pit and brushed away the dirt from the two horseshoes. He handled the gadget with great relish. In fact, all aspects of the game were carried on with great èlan. On occasion he would turn to me and pose the rhetorical question: "Isn't this game great? Have you ever had a better time? Isn't this just great?"

I was having a good time. The iron felt cool and comfortable to the grip. I peered out from under the brim of my hat and, suddenly, after a number of one-pointers, threw a ringer. I found myself with 14 points and only one to go for the win. The President-elect had 13; his son, 12. Cries of alarm rose from Jenna's chair.

I began to worry about winning. What would it do to the President-elect's confidence to lose to someone who hadn't thrown a horseshoe in 30 years? Would he brood? Slam the heel of his hand against his forehead? Stumble into the bushes in the Rose Garden? Talk out loud to himself at state dinners? Snap at Sununu?

I decided I would credit my victory to the hat. "Beginner's luck," I was going to say. "And this hat of yours. If it hadn't been for this cowboy hat...."

It seemed the perfect solution. Gracious. Self-effacing. Just the thing to say.

"Listen, we can't let this happen," the President-elect was saying as he stepped up to throw. He sighted down the pitch. "Remember Iowa!" he called out, in reference to his recovery from political adversity there. We watched the red horseshoe leave his hand, turn over once in flight, drop toward the pit with its prongs forward and, with a dreadful clang, collect itself around the stake. A ringer! Sixteen points and the victory for the President-elect. He flung his arms straight up in triumph, a tremendous smile on his face. From her chair Jenna began yelping pleasantly.

I said as follows: "Nerts."

I can't recall the last time I had used that antique expression. The President-elect came toward me, his hand outstretched. "Isn't that great!" he said as I congratulated him. He wasn't talking about his win but the fact that the game had been so much fun. I agreed with him. Then I told him that the next time I was going to bring my own hat.

PHOTOENRICO FERORELLI/DOTPLIMPTON'S PANACHE WAS EVIDENT AS THE TWO GEORGE BUSHES LOOKED ON PHOTOENRICO FERORELLI/DOTONLY "THE TOOL" CAN SETTLE THE CLOSE CALLS ILLUSTRATION

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)