In 1908 President Theodore Roosevelt warned presidential aspirant William Taft that "golf is fatal,” referring to the reputational toll the game can exacts on one's political future.
Taft went on to be our 27th president and chose not to heed the advice of his predecessor, instead continuing to play the game he loved — openly.
For more than a century presidents from both parties have been criticized for their vacations, and their golf. Do Americans prefer a stressed out president — no fun, no sun, no life outside of the Oval Office or the Situation Room?
Having known a few presidents myself, I can assure you that there is little time to truly unwind, even on “vacation.”
Though I have now sworn off the dastardly hobby of using a metal stick to hit a small object toward a tiny hole, I understand golf’s appeal to a POTUS. There is something to the challenge posed by that dimpled orb that creates great distraction.
The commander-in-chief carries a heavy burden emotionally, intellectually, spiritually and physically; healthy distractions are few.
In no time since he took office have I felt more pain for my president than I did when I read the transcript and saw the pictures from the gruesome beheading of American journalist James Foley.
I cannot imagine how difficult it was for President Obama to read or hear those words — so tragic. My heart breaks for the Foley family.
While not supportive of many of Obama's policies, he is in fact my president; I know with a high-degree of certainty that Foley's murder weighs heavily on him personally.
Should President Obama have played golf after his Foley press conference?
Critics suggest that the president showed no sympathy for the family or that his decision to play golf proves he is “out of touch.” I do not have enough information to make those assumptions.
For starters, President Obama called the Foley family. We do not know, nor are we entitled to know, how that very personal and private conversation went, what was said. He may have done an excellent job of expressing his sympathies in an appropriate and meaningful way.
In terms of the optics, let us not forget that the United States is facing a new and extremely dangerous enemy in ISIS. Is it possible that the president’s national security team made the decision that he play golf that day? Perhaps it was they who suggested that he go out there and show the world, and especially the terrorists, that he — and we — will not be taken out of our lives by their atrocious acts?
If our president is forced to cancel his family vacation because of the actions of an organized band of terrorists, are they not in a way winning?
President Reagan was a hero to me; getting to spend a little time with him early in my career remains a life highlight. To this day we commend Reagan for his sense of the moment and the strength of his verbal, as well as his non-verbal, responses to situations. We still talk about his decision not to wear an overcoat to a meeting with Gorbachev on a cold day at the height of the cold war — it’s legendary.
I am not comparing the two presidents but I am suggesting that Reagan might have ridden horses after the Foley press conference as a way to send a message: terrorists cannot deter America’s resolve.
Golf is exactly what President Obama should have done after the press conference; he needs to heal, clear his mind, recreate, yes, even have some fun, as challenging as fun must be in that moment.
He also needed to send a message to ISIS.
My hope is that he explained this to the Foley family during their conversation, if it is in fact one of the reasons he teed-up that day. It is possible that he explained that he was going to go on with his vacation and that it is in no way meant to show any disrespect to their family or their brave son.
In terms of the mental health aspects, most smart, reasonable people agree that presidents need time to relax; whether it is clearing brush, riding horses, or hitting a golf ball, recreating is good for the mind and soul. As someone who advises leaders through crisis, I can tell you that downtime is precisely what I prescribe for burden-laden-executives during a protracted challenge. Unfortunately our presidents perpetually live and operate in crisis mode, 24-7-365.
Few can comprehend the anguish a president endures, even in times of peace, and especially in times of war. Arguing over the timing of the president’s tee time is more of a distraction to our national mourning than the game itself.
Many of the criticisms levied at President Obama regarding his decision to play golf appear to be made out of political discontent, not American pride — though I trust there are sincere concerns and love for the Foley family expressed by all sides.
If the president waited a day, would that have been enough? What about a week?
Place yourself in the shoes of the president by reading the full transcript of the video from the depraved terrorists. It starts with a clip of President Obama himself, speaking of how he authorized strategic strikes on ISIS locations within Iraq. It also shows a grizzly beheading and then warns of more, as the terrorists parade American Steven Sotloff for the cameras, before laying his fate in the hands of our commander-in-chief. The same group has even taken to Twitter with the hashtag #StevensHeadinObamasHands.
Now, let me ask you: do you really care that your president played golf that day?