There are a lot of differences in policy and style when it comes to the thirty-seventh and forty-fourth Presidents, but one thing they have in common is enormous interest in athletics. At the sports site Grantland.com, Bryan Curtis examines at length the remarkable parallels between Richard Nixon and Barack Obama in this area. He notes that both were bench-riding players as students: RN for Whittier College’s well-respected football team in the early 1930s, and the current Chief Executive for Punahou School’s Hawaii high-school championship basketball team in the late 1970s. Curtis feels that the athletic ambitions Nixon and Obama had, frustrated as they were, helped to make them all the more eager to follow sports whenever they had a chance to set aside the demands of politics.
(It is worth keeping in mind that there is a difference between the two in their brief athletic careers. It is well attested that RN had enormous determination as a football player which did not make up for his comparatively slight build as an athlete or his shortcomings in natural talent. Obama, by contrast, had a basketball player’s build and a fair amount of natural skill, but his teammates and players for opposing teams report that in those days he was somewhat lacking in concentration and discipline, which is why he remained a backup player.)
We nod when Obama name-drops Jared Sullinger. But Nixon could go full nerd, too. His former aide Monica Crowley says he summoned the names of old ballplayers like he remembered faces on a rope line. In 1972, a reporter asked Nixon to pick his all-time Major League Baseball team. Well, Nixon did more than that. He emerged from his man cave with four all-time teams: American League (1925-1945), National League (1945-1970), and so on.
Historian Nicholas Evan Sarantakes notes that the all-time teams included seven pages of explanations and justifications. Newspapers printed the teams, like Obama’s NCAA brackets, under Nixon’s byline. It was a glorious high for a man who’d once said, “[I]f I had to live my life over again, I would have liked to have ended up as a sportswriter.”
Yes, Obama quizzed Phil Jackson about the triangle offense in 2009. But it was Nixon who often called the home of Redskins coach George Allen, invited him to White House parties, and scrutinized his offense. And Nixon led the league in sports-as-war metaphors.
The rest of the article is well worth reading – and is memorably illustrated with a photo of President Nixon rubbing shoulders with George Allen and some Redskins players at a practice.
Robert Nedelkoff is a writer for the Richard Nixon Foundation.