Not even pro golfer Arnold Palmer could let the lack of bipartisanship on Capitol Hill go unnoticed Wednesday.
Palmer, in town to pick up his Congressional Gold Medal during a well-attended ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda, said he was proud to accept the award, “because I’m particularly proud of anything that the House and the Senate agree on.”
Most of the crowd laughed and applauded, but those on the dais — including top House and Senate leaders — didn’t join in as enthusiastically. (Watch video of Palmer’s remarks above or here.)
Palmer turned 83 on Monday, and is just the sixth athlete to ever earn the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest honor that lawmakers can bestow on individuals. The other award-winning sports stars are baseball great Roberto Clemente, Olympic track star Jesse Owens, baseball barrier-buster Jackie Robinson, boxer Joe Lewis and golfer Byron Nelson. (George Washington received the first Congressional Gold Medal in March 1776.)
Before handing over Palmer’s award, country music singer Vince Gill performed the James Taylor classic “You’ve Got a Friend” in honor of Palmer, while congressional leaders lauded his golf career and generous philanthropic efforts.
“Throughout his life he’s been a model of integrity, compassion and commitment,” said House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio), who fought back tears at least six times during the hour-long ceremony. (Watch video below of Boehner’s remarks or here.)
During his remarks, Boehner choked up as he recalled meeting Palmer about 12 years ago at the Pebble Beach golf resort in California.
“Arnie, I’m probably not going to make it through this,” Boehner said as he called out colleagues for predicting that he would cry during his speech.
Boehner said that the conversation with Palmer at Pebble Beach focused mostly on how Palmer credited his father for his success. Boehner said he in turn told the golf great about how his father ran a bar and raised 12 children.
“And then Arnie and I looked at each other, and did this big bear hug, and we cried our eyes out,” Boehner recalled. “Here we were standing in one of the most venerable places in golf. … We were talking about our fathers.”
Before Boehner spoke, other lawmakers lamented their poor golfing skills and cracked a few golf jokes. Not even Rev. Patrick J. Conroy, the House Chaplain, could resist noting in his opening prayer that Palmer’s success has prompted many amateurs unable to replicate his skills to use foul language on the golf course.
Rep. Joe Baca (D-Calif.), who co-sponsored the resolution granting Palmer’s medal, recalled how he yearned for an opportunity to play a round of 70 or less.
In response, Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) told the crowd moments later that “I think the only time we’re going to break 70 is when we hit 70 years of age.”
“I also know there are many of us here today who have been described as some of the best golfers in the Congress,” Udall said. “And I want to set the record clear that that’s like saying you’re one of the best surfers in Nebraska.”
Lawmakers are scheduled to gather for another Gold Medal ceremony next Wednesday when they plan to grant the honor to Burmese democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi.
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