The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The political wisdom of Arnold Palmer, a celebrity who knew not to run for office

Golf champion Arnold Palmer died on Sept. 25 at the age of 87, leaving a deep legacy of athleticism, humor and business success. (Video: Jenny Starrs/The Washington Post, Photo: Ted Powers/The Washington Post)

Arnold Palmer died at 87 Sunday without ever having run for office, despite several efforts by Republicans to get him to do so.

They had good reason to want him. And he flirted with it. But while he had strong hands, he did not have the stomach for what he would ultimately conclude was the poison of an increasingly partisan game of politics. Plus, he once said, he wasn’t “clever enough” to be president; he feared he would blurt out whatever he thought.

The setting was the late 1960s and early ’70s, as the nation was embroiled in Vietnam and then the Watergate scandal and as a crooked vice president was forced to resign, Arnold Palmer was one of the most popular public figures in America.

He was handsome, squeaky clean, famous and widely admired, all the things Richard Nixon was not, a trifecta for a Republican Party seeking to burnish a badly tarnished image.

“Palmer went to bed with charisma,” golfer Sam Snead said of him, and “woke up the next morning with more.”

“Arnie’s Army” of fans did not stop at the golf course. People who knew nothing of golf, knew Palmer — from his many ads, endorsements and TV appearances.

He once subbed, woodenly it was reported, as host on “the Tonight Show.”

Wherever he went, he was hounded for autographs, and he invariably obliged.

A longtime aide told Golf Digest in 2007 that Palmer had signed an average of a hundred autographs every day of his life, for a rough total by that year of nearly three million.

And, by the way, he was a Republican.

He could have run for office and probably won. At least that’s what a group of rich backers thought.

One day, during the Watergate scandal, when Republicans were looking for a clean face, he found himself in Houston in a room full of just such men.

One, an oil mogul, took him aside and invited him into a private meeting room.

“Waiting there,” he would recall in “A Golfer’s Life,” his memoir, “was a group of truly heavy hitters from the business and financial world. … It was quickly explained to me that if I was willing to toss my golf visor into the public arena of high public office, these men would be ‘very interested’ in providing the kind of political clout and financial wherewithal I would surely need.”

Palmer was tempted. “The thought of running for office had crossed my mind before, probably on several occasions.” After all, there wasn’t a major tournament he had played where groups of fans weren’t holding up signs saying “Arnie for President.”

But after saying he was flattered, he politely declined.

Among his reasons: “I’m prone to say what’s on my mind without worrying about the consequences.”

And he remembered what his father told him: “That a smart man learned early what he did best and kept on doing it.”

Arnold Palmer knew what he was and what he wasn’t, a unique quality then and now.

He had been asked before about running for office, in 1964 and 1969.

In 1964 he brushed it off, saying, “No, I’m not clever enough. Someone did tell me, though that Sam Snead and I got one write-in vote for President but they didn’t say what it was President of,” the New York Times reported.

In 1969, he had been urged by Pennsylvanians to run for governor in his home state and, by all accounts, considered it seriously but rejected the idea once more.

But, he was not apolitical, by any means.

Though his father was “a devoted Roosevelt man,” and a lifelong Democrat, Palmer was a “middle-of-the-road Republican.”

“What I mean by that,” he wrote, “is that the ideals of President Eisenhower, Lincoln and other leaders of the Republican Party seemed to represent — a passionate belief in the limitless benefits of personal freedom, governed by an equally strong sense of personal responsibility — were part of a belief system with which I was more comfortable.”

While staying out of the ring, he donated money in modest sums to those in it, most recently to Patrick J. Toomey, the Republican senator from Pennsylvania. He gave mostly to Pennsylvanians and mostly to Republicans, among them Republicans Mitt Romney in 2012, John McCain in 2008, and Rick Santorum in 2006 and the Bush-Cheney campaign in 2000 but also to former Democratic Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania.

He worshiped President Eisenhower, with whom he played golf frequently. “I really liked Ike,” he wrote, “though I wouldn’t have dared call him that. You wouldn’t be off the mark to say I even loved him as a second father.”

It was Eisenhower who made him aware that his best public function could be as an example to others. “The old general who had sent men who were barely more than boys onto Normandy’s beaches in defense of liberty was determined to make me aware of the valuable service I could perform as a role model to thousands of young people,” Palmer wrote. “In a tumultuous period of time that would soon begin to devalue such traditional notions, President Eisenhower believed fervently in the power of heroes to transform lives — and he spared no opportunity to remind me that I had the rare opportunity to be such a hero.”

And he was curious about Richard M. Nixon, who once, to his utter surprise and bewilderment, asked him his advice on what how to extricate the U.S. from Vietnam.

“Well, I started, a touch reluctantly,” he wrote, and told Nixon that “if the decision were mine to make I guess I wouldn’t pussyfoot around. Let’s get this thing over as quickly as possible, for everyone’s sake. Why not go for the green.”

Those who were present, including then-Vice President Gerald Ford, thought he was joking. “They all had a good laugh at that. … But I really wasn’t trying to be funny. It wasn’t that I’m such a political hawk. On the contrary, I’m a confirmed moderate thinker and as I’ve aged, I’ve learned the great value of diplomacy and seeking an honorable peace. But part of that wisdom is knowing when to fight and another part is knowing when to fight harder — a lesson I learned as far back in the streets of Youngstown.”

His memoir does hint at regret for not doing more to integrate the PGA, notorious until recent years for holding tournaments at clubs that did not admit blacks. He had plenty of critics on that score and conceded that “by some yardstick measurements,” they were right.

“It wasn’t in my nature to openly attack the organization or lead the crusade for change, actions that probably would have made me a lot of enemies in an organization that had done so many good things for the game of golf” that was otherwise “honorable and well intentioned.”

Palmer was too nice. And he worried about losing his friends and making enemies.

“I probably have too many close friendships on both sides of the political aisle to ever throw my hat into the ring,” he wrote.

Palmer, particularly as he grew older, was unhappy with the “poisoning” of the political process by “intense partisanship,” for which he said had no taste.

And besides, he wrote, “golf is political enough without adding professional Democrats and Republicans into the mix.”