Saturday, April 29, 2017

Prom Night Along the Brazos

The two old ranchers were sitting in the Buckhorn Cafe early, working on plates of biscuits and gravy when the deputy sheriff walked in. 

"Morning Mike, Kent," the deputy said as he sat down on one of the counter stools and turned to the waitress.  "Morning to you, too, Mary Lou.  Can I get a cup of coffee?”  The last greeting was unnecessary as the waitress was already moving, a pot of coffee in one hand and a large white, porcelain cup in the other.

"Good morning, Bob," answered Kent while Mike, with a mouth full of breakfast, just waved a fork at the deputy. 

As the waitress poured a cup of coffee, she asked, “Aren’t you getting off a little late this morning?”

Mike swallowed his biscuits and added, “Yeah, I thought you were on the graveyard shift.”

“I still work nights, but the whole department got a workout last night.  I just now cleared all my calls.  It’s the end of the school year and the high school had their damn prom last night.  We had anxious parents calling in all night, wondering where their children were.”

“Probably afraid their young’uns were doing exactly what they had done on their own prom night,” said Kent.  The old cowboy smiled, undoubtedly remembering his own high school adventures.

As Mike reached across the table for the bottle of Tabasco Sauce, he saw the smile on his friend’s face and snorted.  “Don’t know what you’re grinnin’ at,” he said.  “When we went to school, they hadn’t invented dancing yet.”

The deputy put his coffee cup down on the counter and swiveled his stool around to look at the two men.  “As far as I can tell, no two teenagers in the county slept in their own beds last night, and less than half of them were sleeping anywhere!  I think every pasture in the county has a family sedan stuck in the mud up to the floorboards.  The tow trucks will be busy ‘til Memorial Day.”

The two ranchers laughed.  “Is that what had you busy all night?  Are we going to have some shotgun weddings in a few months?”

The lawman shook his head and answered, “As far as I can tell, there were more fathers worried about their cars than there were fathers worried about their daughters.  There was one interesting moment last night—I think I met the smartest kid in the county and think that boy’s going to be a future congressman.”

“I hope you shot the little weasel, we already got more politicians than skunks,” said Mike.

“Pay no attention to him, Bob.  He’s just acting ornery because Barbara’s got him on a low cholesterol diet again.  The fat content in his head’s about a quart low.  That’s why we snuck out to eat breakfast here.  He’ll feel better after he finishes his bacon.  Tell us what happened,” urged Kent.

“I was driving down the dirt maintenance road along the Brazos River, looking for couples out parking.  The sheriff says not to bother anyone unless we suspect there is underage drinking or someone is a little young to be out there….y’all understand, we don’t go looking for trouble, but we are trying to prevent it before it happens.”

Both of the old ranchers nodded their heads in agreement and the deputy continued his story.

“Well, I was about a mile down from the bridge below Santo, almost to the catfish restaurant when I see this car pulled off the road, way back under the trees.  That sure as hell wasn’t unusual last night, but the interior light was on and I could see a young man sitting in the front seat and a young girl in the back seat.  That was unusual, so I decided to get a closer look.”

By now, Mary Lou had come out of the kitchen, and was listening as intently as the two ranchers while she refilled the deputy’s coffee cup.

“Well,” said the deputy.  “I turned on the light bar, and pulled up behind their car.  As I was walking up to their car, I could see the boy was reading a magazine and when I got up to the window, there was this young girl, sitting in the back seat doing her fingernails.  They were just as cool and calm as a pitcher of buttermilk.”

“Well, the boy rolls down his window, and I start to question him,” said the deputy, and then he recounted his conversation with the two teenagers.

“Evening.  What are y’all doing out here this late?  Having car trouble?”

“No, sir.  Just reading this hunting magazine, officer.”

“What’s she doing in the backseat?”

“She’s doing her nails.”  At this, the young girl looks up and smiles sweetly at the deputy. 

“How old are you?”

“I’m nineteen, sir.”

“How old is she?”, asks the deputy, pointing to the girl in the backseat.

The young man looks down at his watch for a second, then answers, “She’ll be eighteen in eleven minutes, sir.”

Both of the ranchers laughed while Mary Lou just smiled and walked back into the kitchen.

“Yeah, that sounds like a budding politician.  What did you do then?” asked Mike.

“Wasn’t much I could do,” said the deputy.  “I told her ‘Happy Birthday’ and left.”

Saturday, April 22, 2017

We've Seen This Before

When I told my wife, The Doc, that I intended to compare Venezuela today with Mexico during the Revolution, she was immediately supportive and enthusiastic.

“Who in Hell would want to read about that?” she asked.

Hopefully, you. 

It was Karl Marx who said: “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.”  In 1915, Mexico descended into a violent and bloody revolution that devastated the country, easily qualifying as a tragedy   Today, Venezuela appears to be starting the process all over again, a sad farce.  Below, are some comparisons of the two countries that seemed pertinent, at least to me.  Venezuela is on the left, Mexico is to the right.

In 1915, President Victoriano Huerta—pictured at right—was rapidly losing control of Mexico.  For decades, the country had been led by a Porfirio Diaz, a dictator who skillfully co-opted power from opponents and used the mineral wealth of the country to finance his one-man rule.  After Díaz was finally deposed, a freely elected (and innocent) president did not last long before being murdered by Huerta, a follower of Diaz, who then seized power and attempted to rule.  Unfortunately—for both Mexico and for himself—he was not equal to his predecessor and the country descended into war.

From 1999 to 2013, former military officer, Hugo Chavez, was Venezuela's leader.  Despite vast income from petroleum, Chavez ruined the country’s market economy and moved the country closer to socialism while eliminating most civil rights.  Upon his death, his hand-picked successor, Nicolas Maduro—a former truck driver and labor leader—took over as president.  Today, Venezuela may be the "richest poor" country on Earth.

As the people of the Mexico turned increasingly against him, President Huerta decided to use the military to maintain power.  He told his Congress that he would have peace at any price, meaning he would spend enough to make the army big and powerful enough to crush his political opponents.  One of the reasons the eventual revolution became so violent and bloody was that Huerta greatly expanded the military, whose members frequently deserted and took their newly-purchased weaponry with them.

Eventually, Huerta began conscripting incredible numbers of men, sometimes by simply picking men out of crowds at fairs or public events.  At one point, over 180 priests were conscripted and forced into service (even the sixty who were found to have venereal disease).

Maduro has a small, but fiercely loyal army.  During the Chavez rule, the military attempted a coup, and when it failed, Chavez ruthlessly purged the army of all but the most intensely loyal military leaders.  Since the army is now not large enough to quell the growing public demonstrations, Maduro has begun arming citizen militias to help put down the opposition. 

President Huerta rapidly lost control of the situation, so he suppressed newspapers, arrested men in wholesale lots, and began using assassination squads to eliminate his enemies.  When the National Assembly refused to back his actions, Huerta dismissed the assembly and arrested most of them, too.

In the last general election, parties opposing Maduro’s Socialist Party won a majority in the National Assembly.  The Supreme Court refused to seat enough of the newly elected officials that the opposition was denied a majority.   After months of public protest, the politicians were finally seated, but the Supreme Court stripped the body of all legislative powers and Maduro ordered the treasury to withhold the Assembly’s paychecks.

While Chavez had already closed most opposition newspapers and radio stations earlier, President Maduro has found a few news outlets to target.  CNN en Espanol was shut down recently, and the government refuses to let the New York Times reopen their office in Caracas.  A lot of news reporting about Venezuela today comes from neighboring Colombian or Brazilian-owned news sources.

You can easily imagine what all the fighting did to the people of Mexico.  As trains were used exclusively for military transport, crops rotted in the fields since there was no way to transport them to the cities.  With so little food available, food prices climbed dramatically.  With tax revenues falling, Huerta increasingly turned to his treasury department's printing presses to finance his government.  The resulting inflation eliminated the savings of the small middle class and the lack of hard currency effectively destroyed what was left of the economy.

When Maduro came to power, the country had $30 billion in reserve, despite falling oil revenue.  Petroleum accounts for over half of the country’s annual GDP.  Today, the cash reserve has shrunk to less than $10 billion, which is just enough to meet this year’s debt payments.  To finance operations within the country, the government printing presses run around the clock and to  discourage the black market, Maduro refuses to print bills larger than 100 Bolivars.  (This is despite the fact that they actually cost more to print than they are worth—Maybe, this only makes sense if you are a socialist.)

Shoppers lug suitcases of bills to stores, where clerks cannot fit the wads of bills into cash register tills, so they dump them into boxes.  There is little fear that the notes, individually worth about the same as fast food napkins, will be stolen.

While employment is dropping, there is one occupation that is growing in number:  You can now be paid for standing in line for someone waiting to buy food or medicine.  It has been estimated that in any given line, half of those waiting are bachaqueras (black marketeers) or those being paid by them to hold a place in line.  Fully half of the limited food available in the government run stores ends up being sold on the black market by people whose legal salaries might be less than the roughly $25 a month—the official minimum wage.  Large numbers of the middle class—doctors, teachers, accountants—have quit their jobs and turned to the black market to earn their living.

Since food could not be sold or transported, and since increasingly large armies stole livestock and conscripted farm workers, agriculture in Mexico crashed.  Hundreds of thousands of Mexicans starved.  An even larger number fled the country, most of them moving north into the United States.  Without sufficient workers, mines shut down and quickly flooded.  Many factories and railroads became military targets and were destroyed in the wars that engulfed Mexico for years.

Venezuela has large agricultural assets, but they have not been encouraged lately.  With a seemingly endless source of oil revenue, it was simpler for the country to just import food.  Until recently, more than half the country’s food supplies have been imported.  Today, food shortages are acute.  The average Venezuelan has lost 20 pounds since Maduro came to power.  This is called the ‘Caracas Diet’.  As you can see from his photo at right, Maduro is not on the diet.

Venezuela should be ranked among the more prosperous countries, since it possesses the world’s largest oil reserves, surpassing even Saudi Arabia.  Both countries, charter members of OPEC, have roughly equal populations.  And that is about where the similarities end.  (Well, they are also the two cheapest places on Earth in which to fill the tank of your car.  In Saudi Arabia, a gallon of gas costs about $.75, while in Venezuela it will set you back about a nickel.  Actually, it is less than four cents a gallon.  In Venezuela, gasoline is more prevalent and cheaper than drinking water.)

Venezuela also has the world’s fastest contracting economy, the second highest murder rate, horrific shortages of medicine, and rising rates of malnutrition that rival the worst countries of Africa.  The IMF is predicting that inflation, currently in triple digits, might reach four digits by the end of this year.

As the economy of Mexico shrank, the various armies began looting the property of foreign-owned factories and warehouses.  Before long, the Mexican government nationalized (the polite way of saying ‘stole’) foreign-owned property.  Without new investment in those factories, production halted.  Up to that point, Mexico had been the producer of a significant amount of the world’s silver, and when production dropped there, it caused a spike in the commodity’s price.

Between Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro, it might be easier to list the foreign-owned assets that have not been nationalized.  Fully 10% of the S&P 500 firms have lost property in Venezuela.  Ford, IBM, McDonalds, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Mondelez (Oreos), United, Lufthansa, Delta, American Airlines, and DirecTV have all lost property, and cut back operations in Venezuela.  This week, the assets of General Motors were seized, eliminating the jobs of 2,678 employees.  There are signs that the next corporation whose assets will be “liberated” are those of the Spanish communication company, Telefonica.

With many of the essential oil field services provided by the same foreign corporations who have had their assets increasingly attacked by Maduro government, petroleum production has begun to diminish, particularly on the offshore oil platforms.  As oil production falls, so does income to the Maduro government.  One can easily predict that there will be ecological disasters in the Venezuelan oil fields in the near future.

After Mexico’s violent revolution, it took decades before the country had a stable government.  If Venezuela follows the same pattern, the same thing might well happen.

Or maybe not, perhaps this is all coincidence.  Remember, this historian is essentially just a poor dumb ol’ country boy.  As Mark Twain supposedly said—and absolutely did not—“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Far From the First Time, Part 2

Two weeks ago, I wrote about the traditional relationship between the President of the United States and the press.  What most Americans tend to believe are unique or worsening conditions, are more often the norm across American history.  The same can be said about the record of presidential candidates changing their minds once elected.  Presidential flip flops are the norm, not the exception. 

The term ‘flip flop’ is not universal in politics.  England uses "U-Turn", while Australia says "backflip", but the meaning is fairly constant.  A politician has performed a somersault and changed his position—usually while maintaining that both positions are somehow consistent.

The first use of the term seems to be when President Grover Cleveland changed his mind about a treaty between the United States and Great Britain concerning fishing in Canadian waters.  The Canadians had been confiscating the fishing boats of Americans who violated the treaty.  When Cleveland, cognizant that America was in the wrong, sought a peaceful settlement of the issue, newspaper cartoons appeared showing the president as a fish ‘flip-flopping” on the issue—and the term stuck.

Within two years, the New York Times had an article about a Tammany Hall politician running for the office of District Attorney just two years after unsuccessfully running against Tammany Hall.  From that point on, the term was used regularly in the press. 

Frequent presidential reverses existed long before the term did, however.  President Jefferson had denounced both Presidents Washington and Adams for their support of a National Bank, believing such a bank would encourage national debt.  However, Jefferson didn’t hesitate to borrow money to buy the Louisiana Purchase from Napoleon.  With a down payment of only 20%, Jefferson had a London bank issue bonds to raise the remainder of the money.

As a presidential candidate, Abraham Lincoln promised no radical acts against either the institution of slavery or actions against the South.  Lincoln’s speeches made it plain that he was against freeing the slaves, favoring instead a policy of “compensated emancipation” and forced recolonization of Africa.  Since the government could not possibly come up with the funds to buy the estimated four million slaves (nor the colossal number of ships necessary to transport them), you have to wonder how serious Lincoln was about this campaign promise.

Lincoln also promised not to use force for domestic purposes and to support states’ rights.  During his inaugural address in 1861, he vowed to not use federal troops within the states, saying that such an act would be “the gravest of crimes” against the Constitution.  This promise endured for slightly more than a month.

Wars feature prominently in failed presidential promises.  Woodrow Wilson ran for reelection in 1916 on the campaign slogan of “He Kept Us Out of War!”.  Ignoring that Wilson would in less than six months from the election ask Congress for a Declaration of War against Germany, the President had already sent an invading army into Mexico.

Ironically, in his speech to the joint houses of Congress, Wilson said that the world must be “made safe for democracy”.  Before the year was out, Wilson would help pass laws that saw the biggest roll back of civil liberties and freedoms in our nation’s history.   

In the election of 1932, while the nation was sliding into the Great Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt promised the voters that he would not only cut government spending, but that he would balance the budget and eliminate extraneous and unnecessary federal agencies.  Roosevelt made so many contradictory promises during the campaign season that his opponent, President Hoover, likened FDR to a “chameleon on plaid”. 

Once elected, President Roosevelt not only tripled federal spending, he initiated over 100 new government offices, so many that even his supporters referred to them as the ‘alphabet agencies’.  (A surprising number of which still exist today.)

In 1960, John F. Kennedy ran against the military policies of President Eisenhower.  Touting that he would eliminate the ‘missile gap’—a phrase he coined— with Russia, he played upon the American fears of a nuclear holocaust during the darkest days of the Cold War.  What Nixon knew, but because of security restrictions could not divulge, was that the United States actually had a large technical lead against the Russians in missile technology.  (Today, with recently released documents, there is evidence that Kennedy knew the truth, having already been briefed on American missile superiority.)  Once president, Kennedy stopped talking about nuclear missiles and focused on a military buildup of conventional military hardware instead.

After losing to Kennedy, perhaps Richard Nixon learned from the experience.  After campaigning strenuously against the Vietnam War and President Johnson’s attempts to end the war through a negotiated peace.  As a candidate, Nixon said the only way America should end a war was "to win it."  Once he became president, Nixon greatly expanded the war while negotiating what he called “Peace with Honor”.  Today, polls show that more Americans associate the war with Nixon than Johnson. 

The presidency of Ronald Reagan is remembered as the epitome of conservative policy, but as the governor of California, Reagan raised taxes and helped pass liberal laws on abortion.  While running for the presidency, Reagan called for tax cuts, and while he did cut taxes in 1981, less remembered is that he raised them in 1982.

When George H. W. Bush stated strongly at the 1988 Republican National Convention, “Read My Lips—No New Taxes!”, he most likely doomed his reelection chances after raising them only two years later.  His quote became a political joke that eventually may be the only thing remembered about his presidency by most Americans.

In 2008, all of the candidates—Republican and Democrat—were against gay marriage.  In an amazingly short period of time, this became an issue that even conservative candidates would dodge, usually by saying that it was “an issue best left to states”—a phrase that is political shorthand for putting your hands over your ears and yelling “Nah! Nah! Nah! Nah!  Next question!”

Also in 2008, Barack Obama urged his opponent, John McCain, to accept federal campaign financing, an act that would guarantee both candidates $84 million dollars to fund their election attempts while imposing rigid financial restrictions on donors.  Obama quickly dropped this proposal when his campaign treasury began to receive larger than expected donations.  When Obama refused to accept federal funds, he became the first presidential candidate to refuse federal financing since 1976, when the campaign reform laws were passed.

We should accept that every politician will change position on issues after the election.  There is probably nothing wrong with this.  As John Maynard Keynes once said, “When the facts change, I change my mind.  What do you do, sir?”

Changing your mind as conditions change is okay.  What we, as voters, need to challenge is the politician who denies that he has changed his position, that his new stance on political issues is consistent with his old stance.

It is okay when voters believe a politician’s lies—this is business as usual.  It is not okay when the politicians start believing themselves.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Hammurabi and the Supreme Court

Almost four thousand years ago, Hammurabi was the first Babylonian king of the first Babylonian Empire. At a time when most of the Tigris-Euphrates Valley was made up of little more than small city-states, Hammurabi created an empire from a previously insignificant city on the banks of the Euphrates.

While Sin-Muballit, Hammurabi’s father, had already begun to push the boundaries of Babylon a little outward, it was only after his abdication and Hammurabi's ascension to the throne that the flourishing Babylonian culture birthed ideas that have remained useful and vibrant to current day.  For a millennium and a half—until the conquest of Alexander the Great—Babylon remained the cultural and religious center of Mesopotamia. 

As king, Hammurabi's first project was a thirty year-long period of public works—something that today we would probably refer to as "investing in infrastructure".  He reinforced the protective walls around the city, improved the city's temples, and built irrigation canals.  (Sorry if this intro is a little long, but we historians tend to Babylon.)

Until Hammurabi became king, Mesopotamia had been a collection of city-states, with each jostling for power and wealth.  When the nearby kingdom of Elam tried to start a war between Babylon and Larsa, Hammurabi was able to convince the Larsan king that the Elamites were playing both realms like a drum.  (Evidently this was fairly standard behavior in ancient Mesopotamia, since the language used the same word for both diplomat and spy.)

Reluctant to start a war, Hammurabi went to his temples, where the priests consulted the entrails of sacrificial beasts.  Confident that Shamash—the Sun God—was in favor, Hammurabi prepared for war.

Larsa and Babylon became allies and moved to attack Kish, a minor city-state within the Elamite kingdom.  Surprisingly, Hammurabi did not destroy Kish, but laid siege to the city.  After the defenders took refuge behind the city walls, the Babylonian army built a wooden dam across the Euphrates.  Once sufficient water collected behind the dam, the wooden structure was pulled down, and the resulting flood destroyed the city’s irrigation canals and surrounding farms.  Faced with starvation, Kish surrendered.

Since the usual method of warfare was to burn a defending town, this was—by comparison—a kinder and gentler form of war.  Grateful to be spared, the defending soldiers of Kish willingly joined the army of Babylon.  Almost immediately, Hammurabi turned his newly enlarged army against his ally, Larsa.  Surviving letters indicate that Hammurabi was angry that Larsa had not fully contributed to the war, at least not to the satisfaction of Hammurabi.

Note: You are probably wondering how historians know so much about events that happened four millennia ago.  Mesopotamia had a writing system, cuneiform impressions in a clay tablet.  A surprising number of these survive, but we are especially indebted to the library of Mari, one of the city-states conquered by Hammurabi.  Someone burned the library, turning all the clay tablets into hardened bricks.  This is the only time in history that historians are happy a library burned.  By far my favorite letter in the collection is from a king to his son, the acting governor of a province.  The king tells his son to spend more time governing and less time in the harem.

The conflict against Kish set the pattern for most of the next decade.  Hammurabi repeatedly used the resources and soldiers of a conquered territory to attack the next city-state—a pattern he continued until he had conquered or controlled most of the territory of Mesopotamia.  Countries too remote to be occupied (such as Assyria) nevertheless were forced to pay annual tributes for peace.  While neither the Pax Babylonia he imposed (nor his kingdom) would long endure after his death in 1750 B.C., the palace of Babylon would be envied by wanna-be kings for centuries.

Hammurabi left something else behind that is far more important than the ruins of Babylon:  He left behind the first codified set of laws.  The Code of Hammurabi is 282 legal precedents engraved onto a seven foot basalt stele, located today in the Louvre Museum in Paris.  (And it is magnificent:  If you go to the Louvre, spend your time with the Vermeers and the works of Velasquez and Goya and definitely see Hammurabi’s stele.  Forget the Mona Lisa, however:  it is only a very small painting hidden behind a vast sea of Japanese tourists with cameras.)

At the top of the stele, stands Hammurabi receiving the laws from a throned Shamash, the sun god.  If this reminds you of Moses receiving the Ten Commandments, scholars are still debating whether Hammurabi's Code was the basis of the commandments found in the book of Exodus (or whether both sets of laws were derived from even earlier legal codes). 

The stele itself was originally probably located in front of the temple in Babylon.  After Hammurabi’s death, the Elamites brought the monument to present day Iran, where a French archaeologist found it in 1901. 

These laws cover every aspect of Babylonian life.  They set payments/salaries and punishments for noblemen, freedmen, and slaves.  Roughly a third of the laws deal with contracts, while other sections cover military service and household duties.  Importantly, the laws include a presumption of innocence and the right of the accused to confront witnesses.   One law specifies that bad judges should be fined and permanently removed from the bench.  This is still a better legal code than you will find in half the civilized world (or even in France).

In the days of Hammurabi, there were multiple copies of the Code and they were available in every city.  While most citizens were not literate, the copies were available to everyone—and that is what is important.  Hammurabi was effectively saying, “Look! The laws are written in stone. Literally!"

This meant that the law was the same for everyone and it could not change just because some official wanted to administer the law for his own interpretation, or to give preference to his friends.  Justice demanded uniform enforcement for everyone.  As a human invention, that ranks right up there with fire and pockets on shirts. 

One of the more difficult concepts I tried to teach my students was that peace was never the absence of fighting: it is the presence of justice.  In a very real way, Hammurabi brought peace to Mesopotamia.

I was reminded of all this last month as I saw a candidate for the Supreme Court undergoing questioning in front of a Senate Committee.  One of the senators asked the prospective judge if he would pledge to support the “little guy”.  Obviously, the judicial candidate declined, saying instead, that he would support the law.

If Hammurabi were to remake that 4,000 year old legal document to be in line with today's penchant for politically correct thought, it would be written in chalk...On a rubber blackboard.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Presidential Golf

The president plays too much golf.

Newspaper editors have been saying that for slightly over a hundred years.  About the time I was just learning to read, papers were saying that about President Eisenhower.  Ike did indeed play a lot of golf.  I can remember reading a bumper sticker from the 1956 election, "Ben Hogan For President. If We're Going To Have A Golfer—Let's Have A Good One!”

This was patently unfair to Eisenhower' since he did not start the tradition of presidential golf.  While the founding fathers weren’t golfers, they might have been if courses had been available.  Washington, John Adams, and Jefferson were enthusiastic collectors of marbles, so, who knows?—they might have enjoyed playing with bigger balls, too.

Most of the history books record that William Howard Taft was the first president to play golf, but this is a mistake.  President William McKinley played as early as 1897, but since the average voter didn’t trust a foreign game (it was a nativistic era) and also couldn’t afford to play, McKinley kept the news to himself. 

From various letters, we know that McKinley’s successor, Theodore Roosevelt, played golf several times in his life, but no one knows if he ever sneaked out of the White House to play a round or two.

As I wrote a few weeks ago, Teddy Roosevelt understood how to use photographs to manipulate the press.  He was extremely careful about what the photos would show and how his image would be presented to the public.  It would take an entire evening to browse through the countless photos of Teddy shooting, fishing, riding horses, hunting, or making impassioned speeches.  There is not one single photo, however, that shows him playing golf.

Theodore Roosevelt thought that golf was a game for the wealthy, and he thought the voters would be turned off by a foreign game reserved for the elite.  Aware that the Democrats were trying to disparage the Republican Party as the party of the rich, he even warned his Republican successor against being seen playing golf.

It would seem incredible that anyone would care one way or the other about your playing golf, but I have received hundreds of letters protesting it.  I myself play tennis, but that game is a little more familiar; besides, you never saw a photograph of me playing tennis, I am careful about that; photographs of me on horseback, yes; tennis, no.  And golf is fatal.”  Theodore Roosevelt writing to William Howard Taft, 1908.

Taft, however, would not change his mind.  “Golf is in the interest of good health and good manners.”  More importantly, he liked the game.   He specifically endorsed the game as suitable for middle aged and older men.  (Now that I have retired, I intend to follow his advice—it is my patriotic duty.)

Note.  In hindsight, I have to admit that perhaps Teddy had a point about Scotland.  There is something weird about people who invent golf, perfect whiskey, wear kilts, and like bagpipe music.

The way presidents played the game tells us a lot about the character of the men.  Taft never really wanted to be president—he was far more comfortable in a court room.  He played a game strictly by the rules, and would never allow other players to give him an easy putt.  He once took 12 strokes to exit a sand trap, and recorded every stroke.  He still holds something of a record at the Kebo Valley Golf Club—he took 27 strokes to clear a par five hole. 

Taft’s love of the law didn’t prevent him from celebrating when the new Connecticut Avenue bridge across the Potomac River finally opened.  This gave him a direct quick route to the Chevy Chase Country Club, saving enough time that the president frequently took afternoons off in order to enjoy a quick nine holes.

Taft wasn’t a great golfer (he had a 20 handicap), but he frequently played a round in the low 90’s despite his 300—pound weight.  Woodrow Wilson, was obsessed with the game, was athletically fit…and almost never broke a hundred. 

President Wilson played almost daily, racking up an astonishing 1200 rounds of golf while president.  He even played in the winter, painting his balls black or red so he could find them in the snow.  If the duties during the day prevented the president from slipping away from the White House, he equipped his caddy with a flashlight and played at night.  One such round of golf wasn’t finished until 5:00 in the morning! 

Wilson played for the fun of it, usually not bothering to keep score and he is the only president who regularly was accompanied by his wife.  Not only was Edith Wilson the first First Lady to play the game, she had met Woodrow on a golf course. 

Warren G. Harding preferred poker to golf, but he played a few rounds as President.  As far as can be determined, he was the first president who used to wager on his game.  This is not surprising when you consider that Harding once bet—and lost—all the White House china in a poker game.  Harding turned part of the White House lawn into an impromptu driving range after he trained his dog, Laddie Boy to retrieve balls.

When Calvin Coolidge became president in 1923, he played at golf, but while he enjoyed getting out of the White House for an afternoon, he wasn’t passionate about the sport.  When he left the White House, he kindly left his clubs behind as a gift to President Hoover.  The gesture was wasted, since Hoover, like Harry Truman and Jimmy Carter, never played the game while president.

President Eisenhower loved golf and played an average of 150 days a year, racking up a respectable 800 rounds while president.  When he could not get to the course, he practiced on a driving range he established in the White House Basement and he had Robert Trent Jones design and install a putting green on the White House Lawn.  There are pictures of Eisenhower walking through the White House holding a pitching wedge.  (Unlike Taft, Eisenhower always accepted courtesy putts!)

More than any previous president, it was Ike who popularized the sport of golf with the American public.  Ike played with professionals, and as his duties took him across the country, he found time to play on local courses.  The press loved it, publicized his game, and influenced thousands of young men to take up the sport.  Ike finally got tired of reporters asking about his game, and jokingly said that he was going to pass a law making it illegal to ask the president his golf score.

On the 17th hole at the Augusta National Golf Club, a loblolly pine was on the inside curve of a dogleg fairway.  Ike hit that tree so many times that he lobbied to have it removed, but the board of governors refused.  For over 50 years, the Eisenhower Tree bedeviled golfers—it was under that tree that Tiger Woods injured his knee and damaged his career.  When an ice storm in February 2014 destroyed the tree, the officials at the Dalmeny Golf Club in Scotland donated an acorn from a tree that Ike had planted in 1946 when the victorious general was given the freedom of the city.

John F. Kennedy loved the game, but faced something of a problem.  While campaigning, he had made frequent jokes about Ike playing so much golf.  JFK played a great game——his average was in the 80’s—but he occasionally played in the low 70’s despite a bad back.  Professionals who played with him said he had a beautiful swing.

President Johnson played regularly, and had an "unorthodox" game.  He loved the feel of a good shot, but had no interest in keeping score.  If it took 600 strokes to achieve what he wanted, this was just fine.  (And LBJ took politicians with him, negotiating legislation on the fairway).

Nixon played regularly until Watergate.  After the press began following his every move, an obviously paranoid president gave up the game, even removing the Eisenhower putting green.  From then on, he sought relaxation by bowling in the White House basement.

Gerald Ford was actually a good golfer—he even had a hole-in-one at the Memphis Golf Classic.  Unfortunately, during a game he sliced the ball, hitting a spectator.  The next time the president played, the crowd of spectators was enormous, almost guaranteeing that another spectator would be hit by a ball.  As television comics made jokes, the crowds continued to grow.  Ford’s frequent golf partner, Bob Hope, quipped that while the president had turned golf into a contact sport, he wasn’t afraid to play with Ford, since he had made sure that he and his caddie had the same blood type.

Ronald Reagan didn’t play often or very well, once admitting to a reporter that his best game just barely broke 100.  Despite not playing very often while president, he found pleasure and relaxation putting.  To the delight of the traveling press corps, Reagan frequently putted down the aisle of Air Force One.  If it is your plane, you can do what you want, after all!.

President Bush—both of them—were known for playing golf a little differently.  For them, it was aerobic golf, where the time required to go around the course was more important than the score.  Their average was about one hour and forty—five minutes for 18 holes.  (This is just about equal to  the time it takes me to play 9 holes and lose 3 balls). 

When President George Herbert Walker Bush (41) hit a ball a little short, he'd usually yell, “Power Outage!”  And once, while hitting a ball a little long, he yelled, “Oh golly darn!  Get up there!”  Anyone who has played golf with me can testify that is not the way every Texan addresses his ball.  I firmly believe that golf balls and bowling balls are steered with profanity.

Bill Clinton made up his own rules.  While most golfers will take an occasional Mulligan (an illegal second chance to hit a ball properly), President Clinton was famous for taking ‘Billigans’ as often as necessary.  The Secret Service would clear the course ahead of the president, who frequently took six hours and 200 swings to shoot in the 80’s.

President Clinton rebuilt the Eisenhower putting green with the help of Robert Trent Jones, Jr., the son of the designer of the first putting green.  The location of the green has moved a little due to needs of the presidential helicopters.  It is now located under the Hoover Tree.

President Obama played an estimated 320 rounds of golf while president, which puts him in fourth place for the most presidential games—behind Wilson (1200 games), Eisenhower (800), and Clinton (400).  George W. Bush (43) played just 24 games, with the last in 2003.  He quit the game for the rest of his presidency, believing it inappropriate while the nation was at war. 

No one can estimate how many games the current president will play, but I can tell you that Donald Trump owns 17 golf courses.  If he plays each of them four times a year during his term, he will move into fifth place.

We skipped a president—did you notice?  Franklin Delano Roosevelt played no golf while president due to his polio.  FDR’s father built him a private six—hole course when the future president was only six years old.  At the turn of the century, using primitive equipment, he shot in the low 80’s. 

Of all the presidents, President Roosevelt probably had the greatest impact on the game of golf.  While president, through the Works Project Administration, he built over 350 public courses, extending the game to the average American.