WASHINGTON—What is it about golf that attracts political scandal?
Sure, lots of Americans take free shots and fudge their scores. As Will Rogers said, only the income tax has made liars out of more Americans than golf.
But put a politician near a golf course, especially if it's expensive and there's a lobbyist lurking nearby to pick up the tab, and prospects for trouble grow faster than when you find yourself facing a 650-yard par 5.
"Golf is one of two activities that bring out the worst in politicians," Hollywood writer Peter Mehlman said. "The other is politics."
As if to remind us, this week Ohio Gov. Bob Taft trudged into court and was found guilty of violating state ethics laws for failing to report that he'd accepted dozens of pricey golf outings with corporate executives. The great-grandson of President William Howard Taft became the first governor in Ohio history convicted of a crime.
However, he was hardly the first public servant to get caught in the nexus of golf and politics.
Even in Ohio it had already become a problem, after a state construction official took free golf outings from contractors who were doing business with the state—so much so that the Ohio ethics commission distributed a "golf memo" spelling out the rules.
It might want to make more copies—and not just for Ohio officials.
Take House of Representatives Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, a former exterminator who fancies himself a man of the people. But when it comes to golf, he likes to play some of the most exclusive courses in the world—and therein lies his problem.
DeLay rarely picks up the tab himself, and he's under fire for failing to accurately report that lobbyists paid for his trips to posh golf courses. He says he didn't know the lobbyists he was playing with were paying.
In 1997, DeLay and lobbyist Jack Abramoff stayed at the Moscow Country Club, the most exclusive golf club in Russia. DeLay reported that the National Center for Public Policy, a nonprofit group, paid for the trip. That's allowed under House ethics rules. But NBC News reported that a lobbyist and a Russian businessman put the $3,300 bill on their credit cards.
In 2000, DeLay went to St. Andrew's in Scotland, the revered birthplace of the game. His lawyer said later that DeLay paid for two rounds himself and understood that two more rounds were included in his hotel package, which the same National Center for Public Policy paid for. But the National Journal reported that lobbyists paid the hotel bill.
The House ethics committee is investigating.
Sometimes the lust to live the pampered golf life rubs off on people around the politicians.
In the Clinton White House, for example, it was widely known that the president was a golf nut. He played as frequently as he could and took so many uncounted re-shots, known as mulligans (or, to purists, as "cheating"), that some sarcastic duffers came to call them "Clintons."
David Watkins, Clinton's White House aide and Arkansas pal, apparently liked the game too. One day in May 1994 he and another aide "borrowed" the Marine One presidential helicopter to go to Holly Hills Country Club in Maryland.
After a newspaper photographer snapped him leaving the chopper, golf bag over his shoulder, Watkins explained that the $13,000 copter ride was necessary so he could familiarize himself and the crew with the golf course near the presidential retreat at Camp David. He didn't explain why he couldn't make the one-hour drive there, why he had to play 18 holes there or his score. He was fired.
Then there's Dan Quayle.
Long before he got into hot water for mangling the English language as the first President Bush's vice president, Quayle was embarrassed by a 1980 golf outing to the Atlantis Country Club in Florida with some fellow House members.
It was revealed that Quayle, as well as fellow Reps. Thomas Evans, R-Del., and Tom Railsback, R-Ill., shared the weekend with an attractive lobbyist, Paula Parkinson, who had posed for Playboy.
Railsback denied any sexual hanky-panky. Evans apologized for even the appearance of impropriety, but his constituents didn't buy it and voted him out in 1982. Quayle said he'd gone to play golf and had shared his room with a male lobbyist from the Tobacco Institute.
"If you want to make anything of the trip," he joked at the time, "I guess you might try to make something homosexual out of it."
But it was Quayle's wife who came up with the best—or worst—possible defense.
"Anyone who knows Dan Quayle," Marilyn Quayle said, "knows he'd rather play golf than have sex any day."
For more on some of the politicians' courses:
For more on a 650-yard Par 5,
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Bob Taft, Tom DeLay, Dan Quayle, Bill Clinton
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