Book Review: Power Players: Sports, Politics and the American Presidency by Chris Cillizza

When you think of the times and places throughout history where sports and politics have intertwined, the first images that come to mind are probably presidents throwing out ceremonial first pitches at baseball season openers, or commanders-in-chiefs quipping one-liners while holding up presidentially numbered jerseys, a personalized gift from the title-winning teams that have just visited 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. 

When you think of American Presidents and sport, you probably think of Eisenhower and golf, Nixon and bowling, Ford and football, and Obama and hoops.  But the history between president and sport is not all smiles and photo ops; there’s been a lot more to it than that.  The last century holds many intensely, interactive moments between our presidents, and our sports, that have ranged from the casual to the cautionary.

The sports that our elected leaders grew up playing and how athletics defined their time in office is the subject of Chris Cillizza’s Power Players: Sports, Politics and the American Presidency.  In it, Cillizza reminds us not only how important sports are to the American people but how presidents throughout modern history have used this to their advantage.  “Since the end of the Second World War, presidents have leaned more and more on sports to cast a positive image on their presidency.  And there’s no question that our modern presidents have understood that sports can be used to unite us and divide us in equal measure.”

Power Players begins, as one might imagine, with Theodore Roosevelt who “understood that sports and politics had a symbiotic relationship that could be exploited by leaders.  This book is about the sports our modern presidents played, loved, and spectated – and what those sports can tell us about both who they are and how they chose to govern the country.  Sports, like politics, hold a mirror up to us and those we elect to lead us.” 

Discussing presidents and their politics can be a risky, if not slighted, endeavor, particularly in the modern era when everything has a slant and the dividing line between the aisles is increasingly chasmic, however, Cillizza’s Power Players does its best to be impartial, outlining each president’s love for sport, and how they’ve used it to gain footing with the American people.

Cillizza’s study of sports and the American presidency begins with a chapter on Eisenhower and proceeds chronologically, dedicating one chapter to each president up to Joe Biden.  Cillizza details Eisenhower’s relationship, if not addiction, to golf.  After all, it’s not every day that a golf course like Augusta National builds a cabin specifically designed for the commander-in-chief, not that any course wouldn’t jump at the opportunity.  The author details Ike’s friendship with Arnold Palmer, crediting them both for “building the modern world of golf in the United States.”  But golf wasn’t Eisenhower’s only passion.  His “great genius – his ability to get men to trust and follow him – was honed” as a football coach at St. Louis College.  “The gridiron was the proving ground for the lessons that Eisenhower ultimately used to convince men to run directly into the line of fire for the country.”

Golf is a recurring theme throughout Cillizza’s work.  After all, what president wouldn’t take advantage of the opportunity to play the nation’s most exclusive country clubs?  John F. Kennedy played golf as well but was careful not to be portrayed as frenzied about the sport as his predecessor, the inventor of the “36-hole work week.”  JFK also “seemed to intuitively understand the performative aspect of sports, the way that he could project an image of himself as a healthy all-American boy in the White House.  He wasn’t above associating himself with winners, either.”  Kennedy invited the 1963 Boston Celtics to the White House.  It was the first time a winning basketball team had made the trip.

Cillizza reminds us that not all our presidents were athletic.  Lyndon Johnson, for example, was “big, clumsy, and awkward.  He was not only uninterested in sports but actually bad at them.”  However, like Ike and JFK before him, Johnson had a “keen understanding of how sports could be used to foster and further relationships he wanted and needed to achieve his career goals.  What Johnson understood is that sports mattered to people.”  In 1965, the Texan made sure he was at the inauguration of the Houston Astrodome.

Eisenhower wasn’t the only one to hobnob with the athletic elite.  Richard Nixon forged a popular relationship with Ted Williams.  “Nixon was, without question, a genuine fan of baseball – and sports more generally.  He loved the stats, the personalities, and the drama of the same.  But he was a politician at root – and was not above using sports to achieve his political goals.”

Perhaps no president was as athletically gifted as Gerald Ford who “turned down pro offers from the Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears to go to law school and prepare for a career in politics.”

Cillizza discusses President Carter’s boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics and how his successor, the Gipper, used sport for popularity’s sake.  “Standing next to the World Series winner of the Super Bowl Champs or the Stanley Cup holders was a very good thing for a politician whose job was dependent on staying in the good graces of the public,” something Carter failed to do, and Ronald Reagan did far more effectively.  In the subsequent Olympics, “the absence of the Soviet Union helped fuel the Reagan message of America’s increasing dominance on the world stage.”

Cillizza outlines both Bush’s relationship with professional sports along with Clinton’s, Obama’s, Trump’s and Biden’s.  While every president has varied in athleticism over the years, one thing remains constant throughout Power Players.  Sports are our passion.  The sooner our leaders accepted that, the more successful and popular they became.

Power Players includes entertaining and informative tidbits about our nation’s history, including whether President Nixon may have called a play during an NFL game and what happened when Eisenhower asked Augusta to cut down a tree that he kept hitting his golf ball into along the 17th fairway.  The work is an engaging and informative dive into how important sports are to both the American public and the power of the presidency. 

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