Rupert Cornwell: Out of America

Don't be too hard on the 43rd President. Putting away his golf clubs – in his gilded life – means real deprivation
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The Independent Online

So 43 is doing his bit too. To show solidarity with the troops fighting and dying in his endless war in Iraq, and with their families, George W Bush has given up... golf. When I read that remark, in an interview with the online publication Politico last week, it seemed at first to sum up everything that was wrong with him, and with the Republican party, blindly following him into the miserable dead-end that is Bush's presidency in its final months.

Giving up golf? Is that what the 43rd President means by sacrifice, when Americans – apart, of course, from the soldiers and their families – have been asked to sacrifice nothing in a war he likens to the struggle against Nazi Germany? The cost of Afghanistan and Iraq will be $1trillion or more, but have Americans been asked to pay higher taxes to defray at least part of the bill? Not a bit of it. Cut taxes, cut taxes, remains the White House and Republican mantra, and let future generations pick up the bill.

And so it goes on. Global warming? No worries. The economy? Going to hell in a handcart, but Republicans still seem to prefer banging on about God and gays. If people are fed up with conservatism, give them... more conservatism. The party is about as out of touch with the mood of the country as were the Democrats at their ultra-liberal nadir a generation ago.

If you doubt it, consider the loss (on the same day Bush revealed he had given up golf) of a previously rock-solid congressional seat in Mississippi. The defeat was the third in a row suffered by Republicans in previously safe districts, but by far the most painful – imagine, say, the Tories losing Kensington and Chelsea in a by-election. No wonder Republican campaign chiefs are wandering around in shock.

Belatedly they realise that, thanks to their devotion to the no-longer-a-golfer, they are facing a disaster this November in the House and Senate. Almost 80 per cent of Americans, the highest figure since polling began, believe the US is on the wrong track – and voters hold Bush and the Republicans responsible. "The party is like an airplane flying right into a mountain," one Republican congressman put it the other day. Or, he might have said, like a mis-hit golf shot where the ball ends up plugged in a bunker, utterly unplayable.

But then I began to think again about Bush's "sacrifice". Yes, it sounds small. But by the standards of his charmed, gilded life, and of the presidency in general, it is a pretty considerable deprivation. The Oval Office is a stressful place, and golf has been an important prop for the men who occupy it.

For proof, read Don Van Natta's brilliant book First Off the Tee, recounting the exploits of America's golfers-in-chief. It reveals more about the presidency than a dozen door-stoppers by political scholars. As Jimmy Demaret, three-time winner of the US Masters, once said: "If people want to establish the best candidate, put all the contenders on the golf course. The one who can take five or six bad holes in a row without blowing his stack is the one capable of running the country."

You learn, for instance, that the best golfer was JFK, but he was never associated in the public mind with the game – deliberately so. The last thing Kennedy wanted was to be seen as another Dwight Eisenhower – who took off midweek afternoons to play, while Rome burned.

That was plainly Bush's intent in putting the game aside. "I think playing golf during a war sends the wrong signal," he told Politico. In fact, he's too hard on himself. Golf might once have been identified with fat-cat country clubs, but, today, 37 million Americans play. Golf here is now everyman's sport.

True, Bush father and son – 41 and 43 as they sometimes refer to each other – haven't always handled their golf appearances deftly; 41 used to let reporters watch on the first tee. My wife, then as now a Reuters reporter, put her foot in it back in 1991 by asking Dad about Israel just as Junior was swinging. "Don't talk while we're driving," said the 41st President. "We're trying to get some R&R round here."

Eleven years later, Bush 43 put his foot in it. Asked for his reaction to a suicide bombing in Israel that killed nine people, he struck a jarring note. "I call upon all nations to do everything they can to stop these terrorist killers. Thank you. Now watch my drive." His problem is not being seen playing golf, but what he might blurt out while doing so.

If the Bushes were noted for their speed of play (they once played an 18-hole foursome in an hour and 42 minutes), the man who held office between them was noted for elasticity with the golfing truth. Bill Clinton's scores were about as credible as his assertion, "I did not have sex with that woman".

Bush, too, may have stretched a point when he told Politico that he decided to give up when Sergio Vieira de Mello, head of the UN mission in Iraq, was killed in a bomb attack. That was in August 2003. On Friday, The Washington Post ran a photo of the President out golfing in October 2003 (though, to be fair, there has been nothing since then).

But the Bush era will soon be over and, with it, snide remarks on presidential golfing. Of his two most likely successors, John McCain is on the record as saying, "I hate golf." As for Barack Obama, he plays basketball.

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