Theodore Roosevelt warned future presidents of the grave risks: “Fatal,” he said. Harry Truman shunned it – “a political noose,” in the words of one writer. John Kennedy strived to keep it as secret, or almost as secret, as some of his other diversions.
The obsession? Golf.
For a century it’s been the game of presidents, a sunny escape from the office for 15 of the 18 chief executives since the first Roosevelt. It’s also a game that appears elite to many people, enough so that golfing presidents play at their political peril.
Now comes Barack Obama. He tries to keep his golfing out of view, banning news cameras when he can. But his love of the game has taken him to the course nearly 100 times already in his presidency, and election rival Mitt Romney says that’s simply too much in a time of economic anxiety.
“As millions of Americans continue to struggle to find work, President Obama has now played a total of 1,710 holes since taking office,” Romney’s campaign said in a recent release. “A lot of Americans have had to make sacrifices these last four years. We would expect our president to do the same.”
“Gov. Romney doesn’t begrudge the president for taking some time off,” Romney aide Ryan Williams said. “But he (Obama) has spent an excessive amount of time golfing and vacationing over the last three years instead of keeping his eye on the ball on economic issues.” Romney doesn’t golf, Williams said.
Romney doesn’t complain about the time Obama spends playing basketball, a game of the masses that’s open to anyone for free on outdoor courts. Instead, he focuses on golf, often decried as a rich man’s game.
He’s not the first to complain. As early as Obama’s first summer in office, anti-war activist Cindy Sheehan followed him to the elite island resort of Martha’s Vineyard.
“When President Obama was playing golf yesterday, four soldiers died in Afghanistan,” Sheehan said in a flier distributed on the island. "There are no vacations for body bags."
It’s a touchy issue in good times and bad, and has been since Roosevelt first warned William Howard Taft in 1908 never to be photographed playing golf.
“He said golf was fatal to any man who wants to be president, because it’s a gilded game that’s out of reach to many Americans because it’s so expensive to play,” said Don Van Natta Jr., the author of “First Off the Tee,” a book on presidential golf.
“It is still a very difficult political issue, particularly for a president who is committed to playing regularly during a recession.”
Why the draw, if there’s a risk of backlash? “It’s one of the only times they can be outside and yet away from the pesky press corps and the public,” Van Natta said. “Bill Clinton told me that their lives are at such breakneck speed, golf forces a president to slow down.”
Taft played despite Roosevelt’s warning. Franklin Roosevelt played, before polio. Truman preferred poker, thinking golf a political noose, as Van Natta called it. He was one of the three presidents since Taft not to play, along with Herbert Hoover and Jimmy Carter.
Ronald Reagan played once a year. Bill Clinton played often – and inflated his skills on his scorecard. Both Bushes played, the younger stopping in 2003 because it looked bad during wartime.
Dwight Eisenhower was the most devoted duffer, playing roughly 800 times in his eight years. He played twice a week when in town, Wednesday afternoons and Saturday mornings at the exclusive Burning Tree Club in suburban Maryland, a ritual that Democrats mocked as the “36-hole workweek.”
Obama on Saturday played his 98th round of golf since he took office, according to detailed records kept by Mark Knoller of CBS News, the authoritative chronicler of presidential activities. That’s up since Romney’s last release, now totaling 1,764 holes if the president played the full 18 holes each round.
The president plays with close friends and aides, usually on courses at two military bases near Washington, Joint Base Andrews in Maryland and Fort Belvoir in Virginia. Unlike Lyndon Johnson, who played to spend time cajoling, or Clinton, who golfed with campaign contributors to raise money, Obama seldom does business on the links.
One notable exception: Obama played a much-publicized round with House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, an avid golfer himself, to get to know him better. One other: He played this month with Vice President Joe Biden, perhaps a bury-the-hatchet outing after Biden accidentally forced the president to accelerate his admission that he now supports gay marriage.
Mostly, Obama relaxes, far from the prying eyes of the news media pool that always accompanies him but which is stationed far from view on the military golf courses.
One place he has less control is Martha’s Vineyard, where he plays frequently while vacationing each August. Playing once on a public course, he saw cameras stationed across a street as he approached the 8th hole. He skipped the hole, and the cameras.
Now, the Boston Herald reports that he’s considering skipping Martha’s Vineyard altogether this August, a move that would be reminiscent of Clinton’s re-election decision to skip the island in 1996 for a more populist vacation of camping and hiking in the West.
The White House declined several requests to comment on the president’s golfing.