Tales from the Vault: West Wingin’ It

Ramblings and Rants, Steve Seidman, Tales from the Vault

Welcoming the Super Bowl Champions to the White House has become an essential part of the President’s job, ranking in importance somewhere between signing bills into law and ordering drone attacks. The Vault Keeper considers the White House visit — a tradition that blends politics, public relations and sports-mania.

I.  Visiting Teams

For the Super Bowl champions, a visit to the White House is the last stop on their road to glory. They’ve already captured the Lombardi Trophy, but three or four months later comes the icing on the cake – a chance for the most powerful team in the NFL to meet the most powerful man on the planet.  A visit to the White House has become firmly entrenched in pro football tradition, and it’s what every team in the NFL aspires to. When Rex Ryan boasted that the Jets were going to meet the president sooner than later, that was code for “we’re going to win the Super Bowl.”

But perhaps it’s the presidents who get the best part of the deal. Once American politics were subsumed by the media age, a president’s image became his most important asset. So, it benefits a president to come off like “a guy you’d want to have a beer with.” If the prez can genuinely convince voters that he’s a “Regular Joe,” his “likability” numbers are sure to climb. There are few better measures of “Regular Joe”-ness than being America’s #1 sports fan, and what’s the number one sport in America? Hint: you’re on its website.

II.  Big Blue White House

When the Giants take the stage with President Obama at the White House today, they’ll become the NFL’s all-time leader in White House visits with 4.* It’s only fitting that the Giants stand alone in this regard, since the 1986 Giants were the first team to kick off the tradition of Super Bowl Champions visiting The White House.

But the Giants weren’t the first team to be invited. That distinction belongs to the 1979 Pittsburgh Steelers, who joined President Carter in a somewhat subdued ceremony to salute their win in Super Bowl XIV – and salvage Carter’s sagging approval ratings.** The 1985 Bears were also invited, but the Challenger disaster forced President Reagan to cancel the Bears visit. In 2011, the ’85 Bears finally got their due, when President Obama invited them for a visit.

The ‘11 Giants will be the 26th NFL team to visit the White House (27 if you count the ’85 Bears), and not surprisingly, the ceremony has become rather formulaic: The president sings the praises of the champions, and cracks a few jokes along the lines of how the opposition party has been trying to sack him, how he’ll have to throw a “Hail Mary” pass to get a new bill passed, etc.  The ritual also includes one of the team’s players presenting the president with a #1 Jersey that has his name emblazoned on the back (Carter received a “Terrible Towel”).  President Obama has invited so many championship teams from a wide array of sports to The White House, that he now has enough #1 jerseys to open up a sports memorabilia store if he’s not reelected. This time around, the 44th POTUS has requested a #44 jersey from the Giants. But rumor has it that since Ahmad Bradshaw already wears that number, the running back has told the president that he won’t relinquish it for less than $1500 and a ride in Air Force One.

III.  Dead Presidents

The history of sports teams visiting the White House can be traced back to the Andrew Johnson administration. From 1865 to 1869, Johnson occasionally invited baseball teams to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  It would have been awfully tough for Johnson to step up to the podium with, say, the Brooklyn Excelsiors standing behind him and joke, “Congress is fighting me tooth and nail on this Reconstruction thing. I really need to hit a home run,” because in Johnson’s time, baseball players didn’t actually hit home runs.  During this era, baseballs weren’t just “dead, “ — they were in a state of rigor mortis. But by associating himself with the sports heroes of his time, Johnson might have received a boost during his dramatic impeachment trial.  Johnson was ultimately acquitted by one vote, and while no one can say for sure that the deciding vote was cast by a baseball fan, no one can say for sure that it wasn’t.

In 1924, Calvin Coolidge invited the American League Champion Washington Senators to The White House, a no-brainer in terms of getting favorable press coverage in the nation’s capital. Several years later, Coolidge tried to beef up his sports cred when he invited Bears owner-coach George Halas and running back Red Grange to the Oval Office. As Grange remembers it Coolidge thought the pair were circus performers.

While it’s true that the NFL’s profile was pretty low during the time, this gaffe makes it clear why Coolidge’s main “sports” claim to fame was starting the tradition of honoring the National Spelling Bee finalists at the White House. It also demonstrates that even during the Prohibition era, few Americans would have thought Coolidge was “a guy I’d like to have a beer with.”

IV.  Call The President’s Men

Richard Nixon was probably our most football-crazy president. He was as obsessed with the sport as he was with ferreting out his “enemies” in the media, Congress and the Democratic National Committee.  Nixon attached himself to the NFL in numerous ways.  He phoned the locker room to congratulate Len Dawson after the Chiefs won Super Bowl IV.  In 1968, he considered Vince Lombardi as a possible running mate until someone informed him that Lombardi was a Kennedy Democrat.  When the Redskins played the 49ers in the 1971 Divisional Playoffs, Nixon suggested to head coach George Allen that a reverse would catch San Francisco’s “Gold Rush” off guard.  Allen probably figured that since Nixon was often referred to as “Tricky Dick,” the president knew something about gimmick plays.  Allen actually implemented the play into the ‘Skins gameplan, but when flanker Roy Jefferson reversed field and took the handoff, he was thrown for a substantial loss.

In Super Bowl VI, Nixon called Miami head coach Don Shula and told him that the slant-pass to receiver Paul Warfield – a success for the Dolphins all season long – would be a sure thing against the Cowboys.  But if Nixon knew that this was a tendency, it stood to reason that Dallas head coach Tom Landry also recognized it. When Shula dialed up the slant to Warfield, the Hall of Fame receiver was well covered by the Doomsday Defense, and the pass fell incomplete. Indeed, if Nixon had covered up the Watergate break-in as skillfully as Dallas covered up Warfield, he wouldn‘t have had to resign from office.

Nixon made those phone calls because he genuinely loved football.  Ronald Reagan – nicknamed “The Gipper” after his portrayal of Notre Dame’s George Gipp in KNUTE ROCKNE ALL-AMERICAN — used the telephone because he was shrewd enough to see that an association with the NFL was a good way to ingratiate himself with a populace that was becoming more rabidly devoted to pro football.  Moreover, Reagan saw that by chatting up the warriors of the gridiron, he enhanced his reputation as America’s most ferocious Cold Warrior.

V.  White House Party

Reagan eventually figured that if a post-game phone call to an NFL player or head coach was good public relations, it would be even better for his approval ratings if he actually invited an entire team to the White House. The 1986 Giants turned out to be good co-stars for America’s Leading Man. On the White House grounds, Reagan gave a “Gatorade” bath (it was actually popcorn) to Harry Carson, and Carson returned the favor. Carson also gave Reagan a Giants jersey with “#1 The Gipper” on the back.

Reagan, ever the charmer, made the most of this golden photo opportunity and was even better the following year when the Redskins dropped by.  On this occasion, Reagan stood at the podium and wondered aloud, “Where’s Ricky Sanders?” then he winged a perfectly thrown pass to the Redskins’ receiver.

Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were as media-savvy as Reagan, and they enthusiastically maintained the tradition of Super Bowl Champions visiting the White House. When the ‘97 Packers were honored, Clinton thought that Green Bay’s walrus-like quarterbacks coach Andy Reid was the team’s walrus-like like head coach, Mike Holmgren. This was an understandable mistake that could have been worse – he might have mistaken Holmgren for actor Wilford Brimley, or golf’s Walrus, Craig Stadler.  In any case, the gaffe didn’t hurt Clinton’s image as a “Regular Joe.”  Clinton, like Andrew Johnson, was impeached by the House of Representatives and was 17 votes shy of being removed from office on a charge of obstructing justice.  While no one can say for sure that those 17 deciding votes were cast by NFL fans, no one can say for sure that they weren’t.

VI.  Obama Cares About Sports

Since Barack Obama took office in 2008, the president has hosted over 40 events honoring amateur and professional sports. Obama saw that being associated with the NFL was smart politics, so why not widen the net?  To that end, Obama has honored the 2009 Packers AND the 2009 WNBA Champs Phoenix Mercury. He’s also opened up the “People’s House” to the Lakers, the University of Alabama football team, the Columbus Crew (Major League Soccer), and Sky Blue FC (Women’s Pro Soccer). Future possibilities: MTV Music Award winners,  People magazine’s “Sexiest Man Alive,” and the best of the beasts from the Westminster Dog Show (perhaps their handlers could give Obama a doggie sweater that says “Bo #1.”)

When Obama extended his invitation to the 1985 Bears, Dan Hampton refused to show up for several reasons, including his political differences with the president.*** But Bears Head Coach Mike Ditka had no problem with making an appearance, despite his outspoken conservative Republican politics, which led to a flirtation with running against Obama in the 2004 Illinois senatorial race.

The most famous snub of a White House visit was entirely non-political. After the Steelers won Super Bowl XLIII, James Harrison decided not to join his teammates because he resented the fact that the Steelers were invited ONLY because they were champions. “This is how I feel – if you want to see the Pittsburgh Steelers, invite us when we don’t win the Super Bowl,” Harrison groused. “As far as I’m concerned, he would’ve invited Arizona if they had won.” Harrison also bailed on the Super Bowl XL ceremony hosted by George W. Bush.

Harrison’s logic may seem a bit fractured on the surface, but when you think about it, maybe he’s onto something.  There’s something inherently – oh, I don’t know — un-American about extending invitation to just the winners.  This country is a democracy, not a meritocracy, and besides, after 26 Presidential ceremonies honoring Super Bowl champions, wouldn’t a little change be refreshing?  Can’t you just hear it now: “Coach Mularkey, it’s the President of the United States for you on line 1.”

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