WASHINGTON – If you can hit, drive or pedal better than anyone else, you’ve probably been invited to the White House and had your photo taken with President Bush. To football players, race-car drivers and Lance Armstrong, add this: anglers.
Tuesday, Bush’s Oval Office champions were two prizewinners in bass-fishing tournaments. With Alton Jones, who won $500,000, on one side and Judy Wong, who won $60,000, on the other, the president sought the right words to sum up their achievements.
“I thought it was important to welcome these champs here to the White House so that – you know, to encourage people to fish. There’s nothing better than fishing,” said Bush, a sometime fisherman who stocks a pond on his land in Crawford, Texas.
Presidents have regularly invited sports icons to the White House, in a tradition that dates back at least to the 1920s, when the Washington Senators were a winning baseball team and Calvin Coolidge was president.
But as fan in chief, George W. Bush has reached out to a selection of collegiate and professional athletes that range far beyond football, baseball and basketball to include those who have triumphed on land (cross country), in the water (water polo) and in the air (gymnasts).
To some extent, Bush has made these sports days part of the White House calendar because he likes sports and the enthusiasm his guests bring, say aides and acquaintances.
“The cool thing about being president is you can call anybody and they’ll come,” said Ron Kaufman, a longtime friend of the Bush family’s.
There have been bowlers from Vanderbilt; soccer champions from the University of California, Santa Barbara; Stanford golfers; and, from the University of Alaska, championship shooters from the men’s and women’s rifle teams.
In 2007, according to White House figures, more than 1,000 college athletes, coaches and university officials took part. The effort to reach out to winners became so much a part of the White House routine that a staff member was assigned to track the range of NCAA and professional championships and then arrange visits from the winners.
Kevin Sullivan, Bush’s communications director, is responsible not only for the big-picture message but for hooking fishing aficionados.
Thus, the 2008 champions of the Bassmaster Classic and Women’s Bassmaster Tour.
“There’s huge interest in this thing,” Sullivan said.
White House visits by college athletes can be big news back home. For the White House, photo ops with a top angler or NASCAR driver are one way to present a picture of a president in touch with sports heroes and pop-culture icons.
Richard M. Nixon, who famously was photographed walking on a beach wearing a business suit, was well aware of this.
“Nixon felt it gave him more of a common touch and made him more of a normal guy,” said John Watterson, who teaches a course in sports history at James Madison University in Virginia. “Schmoozing with coaches and players – he felt there was political capital in that.”
George W. Bush, who grew up in a family of competitive athletes and owned a piece of the Texas Rangers before entering politics, is clearly at home in the world of sports banter. He appears to have no problem engaging in G-rated locker-room repartee.
There were no zingers Tuesday as he offered words of support for the sport of fishing.
Bush pronounced fishing “a good, clean sport … that requires good conservation in order to make sure our fisheries are good.”
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