Although we've had a number of them who veered toward the paternal, professorial, or patrician, Americans under (like most people in the world) powerful male leaders, are not strangers to masculine display from our presidents. Whether it was war-hero Harrison brazenly removing his coat and hat for a chilly inauguration, or the real reason big-shootin' Andrew Jackson was known as "Old Hickory," muddling our way inside a miasma of machismo is hardly anything new, but as contemporary ideals shift and change, and as the science of image management has grown more subtle and refined, the representations of presidential manliness have shifted over the years, and it's interesting to observe and note the progression of styles. The military mode of expression has always been there, from George (Washington) to George (Bush), and we can argue who earned the uniform more. Two things that I think changed the game very quickly, however, were (1) the development of quality photography and (2) the rise of popular sports.
Theodore Roosevelt is best rememered as the president who sold himself as an athlete, but there are a few others that most people know well. Gerald Ford was a star football player, for example, and George W. Bush cheered football, and Ronald Reagan played the role of a football coach once, all of which are pretty much exactly the same thing. And every last one of them inaugurated after 1950 golfed religiously. President Obama moves like someone in smooth control of his body, and it's been odd that conservatives have occasionally tried to portray a man who's been known to drain a three-pointer on demand as an effeminate, uncoordinated wimp, but then, they seem to be the ones who put more value on alpha-hood. Maybe the racists among them don't want to credit a "black" sport like basketball--more likely they just don't want to give him any credit for anything--but either way, it's been funny as hell to watch certain corners squirm at his recent photo release, firing a shotgun and looking good doing it. It's not that I approve of the technique even a little--what he's doing here is not much different than Bush's flight suit--but on the other hand, I've got to hand it to the president: that's one hell of a good troll.
The fact is, there have been a lot of athletic presidents, and many of them even tried to campaign on it, even though success doing so was rare. The problem is that it gave their opponents some grist too, and like Obama's hoops, it has had a way of getting subverted, eventually shelved quietly and rarely spoken of again. Archival photos of our earlier sportsman/presidents are surprisingly hard to find. I've been researching it carefully though, and I thought I'd share some surprising presidential trivia with y'all, along with vintage photos. Every entry on this list is 100% historically accurate.
1. William Howard Taft
America, desperate for a diversion after the war, caught baseball fever in the 1860s. (Baseball fever, though evidently contagious, proved much less deadly than yellow fever, scarlet fever, rheumatic fever, grippe, ague, cholera, smallpox, or consumption. It bears repeating that the nineteenth century was a septic, tubercular shithole.) The sport became spread out and standardized during the conflict, and afterwards grew rapidly all across the nation, becoming a fully professional enterprise by the turn of the century. Bookish, portly, and from an aristocratic family, William Howard Taft seems hardly the type to have made a showing in the scrappy small-ball leagues of the late 1800s, but after graduating Yale (where he'd wrestled), he moved back to the midwest and tried to get his weight behind a bat for a couple of seasons.
He played in four separate clubs between 1880 and 1882, and while a prodigious hitter, he had increasing difficulty making it all the way around the bases by the end, and before long, he took up his role in the legal and political world. (Designated hitters weren't common until the American League adopted the rule in 1973.) Shown here is his baseball card from 1880, when he played first base for the Indianapolis Whoppers.
2. Woodrow "Woody" Wilson
Another president remembered for being scholarly, Wilson was a baseball prodigy as well. Unlike Taft (whom he never played against), he was lithe, quick, and witty, known for chasing down balls and making daring catches. Both had magnificent moustaches in their day, however, which, even more than a uniform, was a requirement for professional play before 1900, especially in New York. Historians still debate whether the entire character of the Republic changed on the day Wilson shaved it.
He earned the nickname Woody because even with a big dramatic swing (Joe Dimaggio, it's been said, was inspired by early photos of the president, such as the one below), he wasn't a powerful hitter, but he could almost always make contact with the ball.
3. Dwight Eisenhower
Ice hockey had not penetrated very deeply into the U.S. in the 1920s, and it seems like an odd game for a kid from Kansas, and a West Point football player with a busted-up knee, to eventually gravitate, but that's exactly what happened with young Eisenhower. He was a phenom on the ice for several years, nearly making it onto the first American pro team--the Boston Bruins--when they formed in 1924. He is best known for making a dramatic overtime goal, but he retired from sport soon after. It's a wonder, because even flying around like that without a helmet, he clearly enjoyed every second of it.
His early campaign buttons were meant to read "I Like Ice," but no one on his campaign team got the reference. His friends started calling him Ike soon after, and it stuck.
4. Jimmy Carter
Jimmy Carter was a basketball star in high school, and later played football at the Naval Academy, at the position of quarterback. For all the modern presidents who were known to play football, it's strange that Carter is so often overlooked. With arms like iron beams, he could hurl the ball nearly level across the entire length of the field, earning the nickname "Le Sueur" from one of his Minnesotan teammates, who thought it sailed as if across the ice on the frozen lakes of his home city. It wasn't for another decade and a half that the moniker could have any connection with stimulated emission light devices, but nonetheless, Carter has claimed for years that being called the "laser" is what inspired him to pursue nuclear engineering.
Carter was also notoriously vulgar on the field, even among sailors, constantly dressing down the opposing defense with his impressively foul mouth and large academic vocabulary. Shortly after this photo was taken, he was quoted as saying "He's building a Disneyland? Is that some kind of narcissistic mindfuck? What a mouse-buggeringly stupid excuse for an idea."
And a color photo in 1947 no less. The man was a walking anachronism.
5. Ronald Reagan
Ronald Reagan played many hypermasculine roles during his acting career, and, arguably, in his old age, he would sometimes get them confused with his actual life story. But he never portrayed a boxer on film, despite experiences right in underbelly of the sport, and kept it impressively quiet even into old age. Many of his closest friends never knew when he was alive. Always intensely private about his experiences in the ring, it wasn't until the posthumous release of The Reagan Diaries in 2009 that his pugilist history was revealed to the public. Some surviving political opponents have recently speculated that the eventual onset of his dementia was exacerbated by a few too many blows to the head.
By his own admission, he wasn't a strong fighter, but he was steely-jawed with good features (this is an older photo), resembling a softer, thinner Jack Dempsey, and his managers would heavily promote him by looks alone, usually as an opponent to the local champ, a kind of record-booster for the hometown guy. He boxed professionally in several leagues, changing his name and moving on when his record inevitably would start to catch up with him. The experience of being a professional loser depressed him immensely, and he was unable to come out of that melancholy until he took a chance at a radio gig and met success in another field. From that point on, he took care to craft his image as a winner, someone on top, a man who manages, not one who gets managed.
[Edited to smooth out some uneven language. You know, a whole lot of these guys really were jocks--figures--which kind of robs the joke.]