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“Ike’s not a communist, he’s a golfer.”
—Russell Kirk

I haven’t been able to verify the source of this quotation (maybe there is a Kirk scholar who reads this site and who can), but a cottage industry has grown in recent months using it to bash President Obama in one way or another. Ike, it is well known, played almost 800 rounds of golf as President. I have seen pictures of him playing in France in his uniform, and practicing aboard ship. Mr. Obama has little chance of catching him in amount of play, and probably not in skill. Russell probably did say what everybody says he said, but few people have picked up the nuances.

Kirk’s comment came, apparently, in response to the charge that Ike was a commie that came out of the quirky mind of Robert Welch, founder of the John Birch Society. It is true that Kirk was as reluctant to rub shoulders with the Birchers as he was with the followers of Joe McCarthy (although he said many times that good people were part of those movements), thinking both to be imprudent if not outright ideologues. But examine the statement. In seven words, Russell Kirk condemned communism, cast doubt on President Eisenhower’s seriousness as a statesman, and showed at least a measure of contempt for the game of golf. This is high rhetoric, and we should examine it in the light of what it means to be a conservative.

I have found that there are few progressives on golf courses. On a television broadcast following up a PGA tournament in (I think) 1992, Paul Azinger was asked what he was going to do to get ready for the next week, given that it was Election Day on Tuesday. I don’t think that this has ever been written down, but Azinger said, “Well, the boys and I will probably travel on Monday, go and vote for Bush on Tuesday, and then get in a practice round.” The announcer said that there were very few Democrats on the PGA Tour, which (at least up until the Tiger Era) was true.

Golf is a game that is not only ancient and filled with rules that describe its age, but is a symbiosis between Mother Nature and Human Nature. A stick, a ball, some ground, and the strength or weakness of the individual person is a formidable combination. That Churchill called it “a good walk, spoiled” is probably both a measure of his appreciation for the game’s appeal and his ignorance of its soul. Golf courses and golf’s rules call for overcoming maddening obstacles and for acting honorably in so doing. Few things, even other games, in contemporary life call for honor, and leave it to the individual to determine his own honorable behavior. A businessman friend once insisted to me that he could tell everything he needed to know about a man by playing one round of golf with him. Few activities are so closely connected with human nature, and thus so revealing of character. In this sense, golf is the ultimate conservative game.

And by this measure, Ike was certainly deeply conservative, with a sense of prescription and honor befitting a military officer and patriot. Russell Kirk didn’t like him because he was not Robert Taft. I have always agreed with Russell that in politics, Taft is the measure of proper conservatism in the 20th century. There is much to criticize in Ike’s administration (his practical acceptance of the entire New Deal, for example), but his love of golf is not one of them. Taft’s father, after all, introduced golf to the White House.

Furthermore, Eisenhower’s Farewell Address is arguably the best since the original one. In it he famously warned against the insidious growth of a “military-industrial complex” that uses powerful government to centralize everything from technology to academic energy. While he shared a certain American faith in some sort of progress, more than most Presidents he felt the need to warn against an unbounded faith that Leviathan can direct and control it. There is a prudence in Ike’s Farewell that is rare in American politics. It reflects, or is reflected in, his love of golf.

Institutions change. The Presidency changes, golf changes, and they change together. It is hilarious to see the difference between Ike going out with just a few retainers and Obama’s herd of security golf cars. One wonders how much it costs the American people these days for the President to play eighteen holes. It is almost symbolic that Ike’s presence on a course seemed republican, while Obama’s is clearly an imperial operation. Scott McConnell wrote in The American Conservative last year that “The best thing about Obama is the time he spends on the links.” Probably true, but his heart is on the basketball court. Progressives just don’t love golf.  They can’t, because it’s too tied to the order of things and too resistant to “change you can believe in.”

That is, it was until recently. What we might loosely call “The Tiger Era,” the last fifteen years, has been marked by globalization of the game with its intendant diversity, and, especially, runaway technology. At the recent U.S. Open, Deane Beman (pre-Tiger Era golf Commissioner, 1974-93) said in an interview. “We’ve let equipment get out of hand.” He insisted that “it’s not good for the game. It’s not a good use of land. It’s not a good use of resources, and it does little but make the game too hard and too slow.” Beman was himself a fine player in the Palmer-Nicklaus-Player Era, as as Commish he tried to insert prudence into the rush to equipment change that was already part of the golf landscape in the 80s and early 90s. One hopes that he is not the last Commissioner to look for a Mean in the ancient game. It is not a good thing to hand it over to the progressives.

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7 replies to this post
  1. John, Dr Kirk told me the story in 1975 just as you wrote it. Whether he printed it anywhere I do not know.

  2. I am not a golfer, but I enjoyed the article enough to share it with a golfer friend. He had a small correction to make to your article:

    The article mis-attributes the "good walk spoiled" quotation to Churchill. Popular history gives it to Twain, but even this is
    doubtful. It became a somewhat common saying around the turn of the century, appearing in many books and articles in one form or another,
    but the authorship is uncertain.

    H. Scrivener: "To play golf is to spoil an otherwise enjoyable walk."
    H. Wilson: "Golf has too much walking to be a good game, and just enough game to spoil a good walk."
    Wm. Gladstone's obit: "The late Mr. Gladstone was once, much against his wishes, compelled to play golf. He is reported to have commented
    upon the experiment that it was a good walk spoiled."

    Churchill's famous golf quotation, rather, is, “Golf is a game whose aim is to hit a very small ball into an even smaller hole, with
    weapons singularly ill-designed for the purpose.”

    And and while we're at it, let's not forget Wordsworth: "Golf is a day spent in a round of strenuous idleness."

  3. Andrew,

    Thanks for the correction. I was working from memory, which is increasingly dangerous at my age. The real Churchill quotation is, for my purposes, even better and more apt.


  4. I asked Russell Kirk about the famous quotation during a visit to Mecosta in 1992. He owned that he borrowed it from a column published by George Sokolsky in 1961. In that column, Sokolsky had written in response to Robert Welch's claim that Eisenhower was a Red; he wrote (in part), “Obviously, the former President is not a Communist; he is a golfer: Nor can anyone say that Jack Kennedy is a Communist; he is a Roman Catholic and a member of the Communist Party must be an atheist, a believer in dialectical materialism.” Upon reading these words upon their publication, an amused Russell Kirk repeated a reefed-down version of the quote to William F. Buckley Jr., who assumed it was Kirk’s invention and then quoted it from memory in his book "The Jeweller's Eye." From there the quotation passed into popular lore as belonging to Russell Kirk–who himself never published it anywhwere. It's a convoluted history for such an amusing quote–but interesting, too.

  5. James, thank you. I should have asked you first. So now I have been corrected on Churchill and enlightened on Kirk, which makes the piece very much worth writing.

  6. I used to teach with John at Hillsdale where I rediscovered golf in the temperate Michigan summers, rediscovering its beauty first imparted to me in the humidity of the Carolinas by Davis Love Sr. as a child I now play various senior amateur tours keeping out of way and enjoying the company and new friends. Most golfers are conservative, but the country club scene is a bit bourgeois and afflicted with many old men trying to enjoy retirment–but many are essentialy filled with malaise. The heart of conservative golf is the fine muncipal public courses throughout the land and the excellent social chemistry that is traditionalist and multi-cultural. Recently I played golf with an African-American minister deep in the Carolinas who was inspired by Tiger. I delight in this company that simply was not happening before Tiger's era. Unfortunately Tiger's antics confirm ugly thoughts at country clubs that gain voice, while his impact is certaily present in the public course community with people playing who would have never played before–and many playing well. Well done John,

    Your friend,

    Ben Alexander
    Professor of English and Humanities
    Franciscan University

  7. Ben,

    Whenever Helen and I go to a new city the first thing we do about golf is to seek out the old public courses. You are right, it is where the best people get paired up. Tiger, I'm afraid, has not done well for such people or such courses

    Best to you, John

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