Loaded bases keep Bush rock solid

Letter from Philadelphia
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The Independent Online

There is no sport more American than baseball, the "national pastime." So it was no surprise to see George W Bush touting his experience in the game at the Republican Convention last week, with frequent references to his time at the Texas Rangers.

There is no sport more American than baseball, the "national pastime." So it was no surprise to see George W Bush touting his experience in the game at the Republican Convention last week, with frequent references to his time at the Texas Rangers.

A convention is always a mixture of showbusiness, sport and politics. Not for nothing was the Republican event held in the First Union stadium, where the Philly Flyers and the '76ers usually occupy the vast floor where the delegates congregated. But this convention may tell us something else about sport - and about the way America relates both to it and to politics.

Bush's main claim to fame, of course, is as the Governor of Texas and the man upon whom Republican hopes rest in the Presidential election. He is no sportsman himself, and there has been little effort by anyone to pretend otherwise.

His father, the former President, was a star first baseman at Yale; not so the son, who tells self-deprecating stories about his time there. Pro-bably his greatest achievement was assembling a collection of baseball cards.

But after a very unimpressive few years in the oil business, Bush was brought in to lead a group of investors who bought the Texas Rangers, put together a package - most of it from the local government - to build a new ballpark, and helped the Rangers become what they are today: one of the better teams in the league.

Now, Mr Bush cannot and does not claim that the sporting success of the Rangers was his. "I signed off on that wonderful transaction: Sammy Sosa for Harold Baines," he told reporters earlier this year. Baines is a solid if unexciting performer; Sosa, who went to the Chicago Cubs, starred in 1998's home run race against Mr McGwire of the St Louis Cardinals.

But his contact with the sport is a vital part of the Bush legend. "Baseball has been, arguably, the most important thing in Bush's life," said the Washington Post. "It was his vehicle both for embracing a family tradition and for leaving his father's shadow. It made him a success after a series of business failures, it made him rich, and it launched his political career.

Baseball also gave Bush a powerful, if intangible, asset. It made him a regular guy, not a president's son from Andover, Yale and Harvard but a guy who spit sunflower shells while hob-nobbing with the on-deck batter." Or, as Bill Clinton put it, mocking Bush's achievements: "My daddy was president. I own a baseball team. They like me down there... Everything is rocking along hunky-dory." But when the Republicans sought sports stars to decorate their convention, it was not to baseball that they turned. Oh, there was the occasional football player, but that was not what the party wanted to showcase. The theme of the convention was inclusiveness, the party's desire to open itself up to new ideas and new trends. So they went for The Rock.

The Rock, a 28-year-old chunk of gristle, "competes" in the World Wrestling Federation, that unique mixture of showbusiness, shouting and slamming which has taken America by storm in the past decade. Calling it sport raises a few questions, to say the least, but it certainly works for the advertisers and the networks, so no-one is really complaining.

The excuse for bringing in The Rock is that Dennis Hastert, the Speaker of the House and a leading Republican, is a former wrestling coach, though what that has to do with anything, God knows. More to the point, WWF brings viewers. "WWF fans are a cross-section of Americana. They are the voice of the people, and they will elect the next president of the United States," said Linda McMahon, CEO of World Wrestling Federation Entertainment.

In any case, The Rock seemed to understand what was required him of him pretty well. "Ladies and gentlemen, The Rock did an important thing this week. He registered to vote," Mr Haster said. "If the Rock didn't know any better, he'd say you might be trying to reach out to all the Rock's fans - 14 million eligible voters," said the man himself.

The moral of this story: if you're a politician and you want to make yourself look All-American, down-home and a regular guy, just go and buy yourself a baseball team. That will get you to your party's national convention. In the same way, Hillary Rodham Clinton has made a (very unconvincing) effort to pretend to be a Yankees fan, in the vain belief this might help her win the New York Senate seat.

But in an era when the country is losing interest in its traditional sports, baseball won't win you enough votes to win the White House. For that, you need The Rock.