golfers and conservatives

“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.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility.

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