December 29, 2010
by Tevi Troy
President Obama's recent call to Philadelphia Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie has already caused the president some political headaches.
First, the Washington Post reported that Obama again steps outside the lines, weighing in on a controversial issue that is unrelated to his presidency. In addition, Obama has been hit by liberal blogger Ezra Klein for being somewhat disingenuous about the reason for the call, with the White House now claiming that he called Lurie to talk about efficient energy use and unspecified "other things." And of course, animal rights advocates are understandably upset that Obama implicitly praised Vick, who has paid a significant debt to society for his sins against our canine friends.
Obama's problem in this situation, however, may not be related to any of the above problems so much as making the cardinal presidential mistake of weighing in on or commenting about football. The football curse has plagued presidents for nearly a century, perhaps since Teddy Roosevelt famously intervened in 1905 to get college football teams to agree to use both helmets and more serious safety rules to cut down on injuries and deaths.
Even back in the 1920s, when gridiron great Red Grange visited the White House, the laconic Calvin Coolidge bizarrely said "Nice to meet you, young man. I've always enjoyed animal acts." But Coolidge's comment was relatively harmless to his presidency. Other presidents have made enough mistakes on football to populate an entire blooper bowl, particularly Richard Nixon.
Nixon's poor judgment in sending failed football plays to Washington Redskins coach George Allen prompted the columnist Art Buchwald to write "If George Allen doesn't accept any more plays from Richard Nixon, he may go down in history as one of pro football's greatest coaches."
And in 1969, Nixon handed University of Texas coach Darrell Royal a plaque after his team defeated Arkansas and completed an undefeated season. The problem was that Penn State also went undefeated that season, and the national title, which was decided by the AP and UPI polls in those pre-BCS days, went to the Longhorns. Penn State fans have forever blamed Nixon for Texas finishing No. 1 that year. Nittany Lions coach Joe Paterno was so bitter that, years later, he publicly wondered, "How could Nixon know so little about Watergate and so much about football?"
Another time that Texas football discomfited a president was in the same year, when Royal asked ex-President Lyndon Johnson to help recruit five African-Americans to play for the Longhorns, despite their less than stellar record on race relations. Johnson flew from his ranch to visit the five at the LBJ library in Austin, but none of the players joined the Longhorns, despite Johnson's legendary persuasiveness.
Fellow Texan George W. Bush was also a football fan, and liked watching NFL games with his National Security Advisor and later Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. In 2002, when watching a playoff game between Miami and Baltimore, Bush choked on a pretzel and fell forward, bruising his face. The incident provided endless material for the late night comics, including this gem from Jay Leno: "All this time we were worrying about Osama bin Laden, turns out he was almost done-in by Mr. Salty."
Football has also been a means for insulting other presidents, and not always gently. According to Gerald Gardner's Campaign Comedy: Political Humor from Clinton to Kennedy, Gerald Ford once spoke of the similarities between himself and his GOP rival Ronald Reagan, saying "We both played football. I played for Michigan. He played for Warner Brothers." Ford joked that his wife, a far better dancer than he, thought that Ford had played center at Michigan because "it was one of the few positions where you don't have to move your feet." Less charitably, Johnson once said that Ford had played too many football games without a helmet.
But football humor can not only cut, it can also backfire. During the 1992 campaign, Dan Quayle joked that he knew why Clinton liked football - when he hears hike, he thinks of taxes. The Bush-Quayle presidential campaign did not do much better than the joke did, as Clinton won the election.
Obama should take a double lesson from all of this. Not only have previous presidential forays into football gone awry, but Obama has had trouble with sports in general. The first pitch he threw in at the 2009 All-Star Game in Chicago was widely derided - especially compared to his predecessors' skill in this department. The suburban mom jeans Obama wore at the time also came in for criticism.
Obama's off-script efforts often get him into trouble in other areas as well, whether it be poor performances when he lacks a teleprompter, or off-key comments on race and police in the case of Louis Gates' arrest. After two years in the White House, Obama needs to learn to stay far away from sports, especially football, and stick to his script.
Tevi Troy is a Visiting Fellow at Hudson Institute and served as the Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services from 2007 until 2009.
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