Exploring a Presidential Passion for Sports
As His Time in Office Winds Down, Bush Discusses a Topic Near to His Heart

By Liz Clarke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 11, 2008

With six weeks to go before he leaves the White House, President Bush has been looking back at his time in office. Yesterday, he offered a summation of one of his favorite topics -- his love of sports, both as a participant and spectator.

The president lamented the challenge that the hobbled U.S. economy will present major league sports in the coming months, both at the ticket window and in terms of corporate support -- particularly baseball, the game he knows and loves best.

"It's a repeat business," said Bush, who was managing general partner of the Texas Rangers from 1989 to 1994. "If you're unable to get the American family to come to your park more than once a year, you're going to have a difficult time when it comes to your attendance. Of course this will exacerbate the problem."

Asked if he'd be interested in succeeding Bud Selig as commissioner of Major League Baseball, Bush firmly rejected the notion -- not because of any disaffection from the sport, but rather, he said, because of a fatigue of public life.

"I'm looking forward to getting off the stage," Bush said. "I have done my duty to my country. I have given it my all. It's now President-elect Obama's time. I have had enough of the spotlight."

Fortified by half a cup of black coffee, Bush seemed willing to talk sports on end, joking at the conclusion of the 40-minute Oval Office interview that he only needed to end it because Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke was waiting to see him.

In addition to baseball, he spoke about performance-enhancing drugs, the Beijing Olympics and his own exercise regimen. He also recalled how some of his strongest memories of his eight-year tenure involved sports -- some of them humorous, others somber.

He laughed about the brouhaha that erupted in 2005 when Northwestern's national championship women's lacrosse team arrived at the White House wearing flip-flops. "I thought it was cool!" Bush said. "Look, I'm the father of young girls -- now professional women. But I thought it was great; it didn't bother me in the least. When you're president, you get used to all kinds of characters."

He also recalled the overwhelming adrenaline he felt as he strode out to the mound at Yankee Stadium to throw out the first pitch of a World Series game not long after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the epiphany he gained from it, as a capacity crowd chanted, "USA! USA!" and fighter jets roared overhead.

"The emotion of the crowd and the unity of the moment reminded me, upon reflection, that sports can cause people to momentarily forget their problems and join together to cheer for the favorite team," Bush said. "It helps you face difficulties."

Bush said that baseball teams in small markets and cities without a significant corporate base face hurdles during the recession -- the Washington Nationals, among them. But they can be overcome, he said, pointing to the Milwaukee Brewers and Minnesota Twins as examples of small-market success stories.

"Putting a winning team on the field will help all markets," Bush said. "No question about it. The revenue disparities are huge. And the Washington market doesn't generate nearly as much money as the New York market does, and in many ways they share expenses through arbitration."

To the extent sports intersected with policy during his time in the White House, Bush defended the stands he took and the tone he struck.

He used his 2004 State of the Union address to call on professional athletes and leagues to get rid of steroids, stressing the obligation to set good examples for youngsters.

But could more have been done, particularly because the list of once-revered athletes linked to performance-enhancing drugs has only grown, snaring Olympic champion Marion Jones and Tour de France victor Floyd Landis, among many others?

"I'm sure so," Bush said. "But it's easy to second-guess. The question is: Is more being done now? It seems like they are making great strides. [But] are they going to invent detection devices to take care of the next round of exotics?"

Asked his reaction when he learned that pitcher Roger Clemens had been linked to steroids, Bush first demurred, then said, "I was surprised."

And he steered well clear of talk of a college football playoff -- the hot-button issue among sports fans that Obama has adopted as his own. "I do not have an opinion on it," Bush said, "except for the fact that I'm sorry the Texas Longhorns aren't there." Florida and Oklahoma will play for the national championship on Jan. 8.

At 62, Bush is physically fit -- the result of a regime that he has dutifully followed the past eight years, directing that a 45-minute workout, followed by a 30-minute cool-down, during which he said he reads and works on speeches, be scheduled on his calendar six days a week.

By a conservative estimate, that's 2,496 hours spent on a treadmill, elliptical machine or mountain bike during his presidency. Bush said exercise has been critical to maintaining both health and equilibrium.

"I exercise real hard," Bush said. "It helps clear my mind. It relieves frustration. It helps me sleep at night. It helps me get over the really good food they have here at the White House."

And having a 90-second commute to his gym -- on the top floor of the White House, outfitted with a stationary bike, Arc trainer, elliptical machine and weights -- makes it especially convenient. He'll read a book while working out on a machine, then pop downstairs to his office in the residence (separate from the Oval Office) for 30 minutes afterward, he said, "to do my homework."

During overseas flights he'll often hop on a stationary bike on Air Force One and ride for an hour or so.

Weekends are for mountain biking, his favorite exercise, which he took up after his knees started aching from so much running on the track on the White House South Lawn. Each time he leaves the White House it requires an 11-car motorcade that ferries him and his bike to trails at Fort Belvoir or the Secret Service training center.

These are serious workouts, but social events as well, which include a range of guests from one weekend to the next. The guests have included Washington Redskins Coach Jim Zorn and Gen. David Petraeus, head of the U.S. Central Command, as well as State Department employees, Cabinet secretaries and other members of the military.

Bush said he calls his gang "Peloton One."

"They help me become a better rider," he said. "But it also sends a signal throughout the White House and throughout parts of our government that here's a fellow who reached out to people at all levels of government and enjoys being with them."

Peloton One doesn't talk politics, either. "No, man!" Bush said. "We ride!"

As the days of his presidency wind down, with them disappear what Bush said were some of the greatest joys of his presidency.

At the top of his list: attending the Army-Navy game as commander-in-chief, which he has done three times.

He has also attended his last Olympics as head of state and said he treasured the opportunity to meet members of the U.S. women's softball team, the U.S. men's basketball team and the gold medal-winning women's beach volleyball team of Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh.

But there are privileges that come with being a private citizen. Back at his ranch in Crawford, Tex., is his collection of signed baseballs -- reportedly as many as 250 (including one with both Joe DiMaggio's and Ted Williams's autographs) -- that Bush said didn't seem appropriate as White House decor. And even though he could have attended any sporting event he wanted as president, Bush said he was careful about keeping it to a minimum, mindful of the inconvenience the extra layers of security caused fans.

The next time he sits in the stands, his presence won't cause such a stir. And for now, Bush said, he won't miss the spotlight.

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