American elections are a lot like American sports: the fiery speeches, the raucous rallies, the unthinking partisan loyalties that ultimately make fools of us all. In fact, anyone seeking proof of the ties between our government and our games need look no further than the country's first family, the Kennedys, who in between dodging bullets and driving off bridges have always found time for more wholesome forms of recreation. There's the touch football, for starters, and the downhill skiing, and then of course the touch football combined with the downhill skiing, which—
Well Meat, not every idea's a winner.
But it'll take more than a few rogue fir trees to unseat sports in the freewheeling political culture of these United States, and so it's with all due pomp and circumstance that we spend this Election Eve running down a list of the all-time Washington jocks, a group of sporting statesman who either got their start between the lines or brought a certain athletic verve with them into office. Granted, that verve is not now and never has been a guarantee of capital success, and it's certainly true that sports and politics won't ever be anything more than the most curious of bedfellows, but let's be serious here Meat:
The same goes for human beings and participatory democracy. It's a grand experiment out there, and no one ever said it had to make any sense...
Number Five: Gerald Ford
It's more than just a little ironic that the nation's most decorated presidential jock—Ford was an All-American offensive lineman at the University of Michigan—was also its most physically inept. After ascending to the White House in the wake of the Watergate scandal, Ford did his best to put the fun back in national politics by falling down whenever possible: after press conferences; before press conferences; even on the way in and out of Air Force One. Combined with his Neanderthal browline, the President's clumsiness made him an easy target for imitators and satirists—most notable among them a young Chevy Chase, whose Ford routine was a staple on Saturday Night Live. And though most political experts bewail Ford's Oval Office record, the crew at the Spot would like to make this much abundantly clear: Anyone who helped launch a career that brought the world Cops and Robbersons and Vegas Vacation is all right by us, Saigon and stagflation and soft-willed Nixon pardons be damned. Godspeed, Mister President. Thanks for the memories.
Number Four: Jim Bunning
Some men are born to be pitchers, some men are born to be politicians, and some men—well, some men are born to do both...though it's not always a good idea. Bunning's baseball legacy is beyond reproach: In seventeen Hall of Fame seasons, he notched 224 wins, made seven All-Star appearances, and threw two no-hitters—the second a perfect game. His political record, alas, is wee bit more checkered: Since being elected to the House in 1986 and the Senate in 1998, the Kentucky Republican has made something of a dubious name for himself, ultimately earning inclusion in a 2006 Time list of the five worst American senators. We'll leave a full summary of the lowlights to Wikipedia, but suffice it to say that "He sure could pitch" is generally a bad reason to vote for a candidate. Ditto for "He sure was a mediocre owner of the Texas Rangers," while we're at it.
Number Three: Jack Kemp
Perhaps Kemp would be better known today if he hadn't hitched his wagon to a series of doomed stars: first as an ace quarterback in the AFL; then as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under George Bush the Elder; finally as a lame-duck VP candidate on that most hopeless of all presidential tickets—Dole-Kemp '96. Still, we'd be remiss if we didn't give credit where it's due; Cadillac Jack (not really his nickname, but it sounded too cool to pass up) was a stud in his time, winning the AFL MVP in 1965 and championing market-based housing and business reforms during his HUD tenure. He also once went on public record denouncing soccer as a "European socialist sport," which seems like it probably ought to count for something. Because if it doesn't, like, the Communists have already won. Or the terrorists. It's hard to keep those two straight these days, isn't it?
Number Two: Theodore Roosevelt
Rough rider, naturalist, walker of soft walks and wielder of big sticks—TR was all things to all men in his day, the sort of multidimensional bull moose for whom politics meant kicking ass and taking names. In between overseeing the completion of the Panama Canal and negotiating a settlement to the Russo-Japanese War, Roosevelt even found time to nurture his lifelong jones for college sports, ultimately working to found the NCAA in 1906. Indeed, the President was nothing if not a jock at heart, having competed as a boxer and rower during his Harvard career. Physical robustness, as a side note, apparently didn't run in the family: Roosevelt's distant cousin Franklin, himself a marginally successful politician, never was much of an athlete. Funny what polio can do to a guy's stamina.
Number One: Bill Bradley
There was some disagreement around the Spot this week as to who should occupy the pole position—mostly because we couldn't settle on a single set of criteria. Some of us wanted to give credence to figures known as statesmen first and athletes second; some of us were more interested in hyping the jock side of the equation. Bradley ultimately got the nod at number one because it's so darned hard to pin a label on the dude: Is he a basketball player who got into politics, or a politician who happened to play basketball? Anyway you cut it, the former Knicks forward and New Jersey senator has earned more than his share of accolades over the years: a gold medal at the 1964 Olympics, the 1965 James E. Sullivan award as the best amateur athlete in the country, a berth in the NBA Hall of Fame in 1982—to say nothing of the Rhodes Scholarship he earned after graduating with honors from Princeton. He served in the Senate from 1979 to 1997, and later went on to challenge Al Gore for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2000. He came up short, of course, but Dollar Bill (actual nickname here) didn't let that—
Oh, who are we kidding. The man got beat by Al Gore. Al Gore. There's no putting a positive spin on that. It wouldn't even be worth noting that, in some circles, getting beat by Al Gore gives you a one-way ticket to the White House. Not that we're still, you know, nursing sour grapes, or anything like that...