Matthew Algeo is the author of five books, including “Pedestrianism: When Watching People Walk Was America’s Favorite Spectator Sport.”
In his first 88 days in office, President Trump went golfing 14 times — an average of once every 6.3 days. At that rate, he’ll end up golfing far more frequently than President Barack Obama, who golfed once every 9.5 days and whom Trump often criticized for spending too much time on the links.
Golf is always a risky undertaking for a president. Trump might want to consider the case of the first golfing president: William Howard Taft, with whom Trump shares some striking similarities.
By his own admission, Taft was “addicted to golf.” He played so often during the 1908 presidential campaign that his predecessor and political mentor, Theodore Roosevelt, urged him to give up the game. Roosevelt, who despised golf, told Taft he had received “literally hundreds of letters” from people complaining about Taft playing a “rich man’s game.”
But Taft was unrepentant and disputed the notion that golf was a rich man’s pursuit, writing: “I know that there is nothing more democratic than golf; that there is nothing which furnishes a greater test of character and self-restraint, nothing which puts one more on an equality with one’s fellows, or, I may say, puts one lower than one’s fellows, than the game of golf.”
Taft was a bad golfer — he rarely broke 100 — but his love of the game was absolute. He called it a “splendid form of exercise.” Taft, who was famously obese, credited the game for putting him in the “splendid physical condition” necessary for “the strenuous work of the campaign.”
The election results seemed to vindicate Taft: He soundly defeated the Democratic nominee, William Jennings Bryan. He also continued to golf throughout his presidency, frequently slipping out of the White House to sneak in an afternoon round at the Chevy Chase Club. In August 1909, he golfed on 20 of the month’s 31 days. Taft, who’d been reluctant to run for president in the first place, began to seem disengaged from the job.
“As a president,” a popular joke went, “Taft is an excellent golfer.”
Like Trump, Taft was confronted by a great schism within the Republican Party. Roosevelt came to believe that Taft was too conservative and decided to challenge him for the 1912 Republican nomination. This ended the two men’s long friendship.
That summer, Roosevelt went to the Republican convention in Chicago to lobby delegates while Taft stayed back in Washington and golfed at Chevy Chase. Taft still won the nomination, but his seeming indifference was widely criticized. “President Taft played golf while the Republican party was being roasted and Nero of old fiddled while Rome burned,” a Seattle newspaper noted. “Is this history repeating itself?”
Roosevelt, of course, ran as a third-party candidate in the 1912 election against Taft and the Democratic nominee, Woodrow Wilson. Taft’s golfing became a campaign issue. One of Roosevelt’s surrogates, Kansas Gov. Walter Stubbs, claimed that Taft “preferred golf to work.” The Wichita Beacon, a pro-Roosevelt newspaper, observed: “It is said that Taft plays better golf than politics. And he generally loses at golf.”
Still, Taft refused to give up the game he loved. He would golf, even if it cost him votes. Between July 4 and Election Day, a span of 125 days, he golfed at least 34 times — once every 3.6 days. The game helped Taft cope with the pressure of the campaign, as well as the collapse of his friendship with Roosevelt.
Like Trump, Taft was fanatical about golf. Like Trump, he seemed to take little joy in the presidency and find relief on the links. Like Trump, he was overweight yet extolled the physical benefits of the game. Like Trump, he was confronted by a recalcitrant faction within his party.
Wilson was elected president on Nov. 5, 1912. Roosevelt finished second.
Taft came in third, winning just two states (Utah and Vermont). The next morning, he got up early and went golfing.
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