the first White House tee-ball game, played on the South Lawn in
May, a seven-year-old batter stepped to the tee, took a big cut,
missed the ball, stepped back, took another swing, and sent a hard
line drive to right field. It looked like a sure hit, until a young
outfielder snagged it with a quick jab of his glove. With that,
George W. Bush, sitting in the bleachers along the first-base line,
jumped to his feet. "What a catch!" the president
yelled, laughing and applauding and appearing more excited than
some of the parents around him, many of whom remained in their seats.
It was a spontaneous
burst of enthusiasm from a man who seemed delighted to be watching
baseball in his backyard — even tee ball, played by kids eight and
under with no pitchers and no keeping score. But tee-ball games
(three so far, with another scheduled for September) are more than
just entertainment for former Texas Rangers owner George W. Bush.
That was clear before the first game even began, when the president
delivered a brief, off-the-cuff homily to the players and parents.
want to thank . . . coaches all across America," Bush said
as he paced around the infield, "who help young men and women
understand the importance of teamwork and playin' by the rules,
and help young men and women understand that baseball is a fabulous
sport." Bush thanked the parents "who love their children
every single day and love 'em so much that they're willin' to go
out and watch 'em play Little League baseball." Dropping every
g in sight, Bush continued: "There's nothin' better than knowin'
that America is full of lovin' moms and dads who are at the ballparks
every day as the summer unfolds." Finally, Bush turned to the
teams and led the players in reciting the Little League pledge:
"I trust in God. I love my country and will respect its laws.
I will play fair and strive to win. But win or lose, I will always
do my best."
It was simple
and heartfelt and . . . corny, in a way not often heard in
official Washington. And Bush seemed to love it; during the game
he appeared as engaged and happy as at any time during his six months
in the White House. For Bush, tee ball is not only a way to nurture
a game he loves — he often frets that not enough kids are playing
Little League ball — but a way to do precisely what some of his
liberal critics feared he would do: promote a return to 1950s values
in America. Much more than his upcoming values initiative called
"Communities of Character" — a grab bag of politically
popular mini-programs devoted to topics like good citizenship and
teenage sexual abstinence — Bush's South Lawn gatherings are the
real thing. If you want to see the real Bush values agenda at work,
watch him at the tee-ball games.
Bush is the first president to have played Little League baseball.
To say he loved it would be an understatement; last year, when Oprah
Winfrey asked him to name his fondest childhood memory, Bush answered
simply, "Little League baseball in Midland." His mother
and father were both boosters; in the 1980s, Little League named
its parents-of-the-year prize the George and Barbara Bush Award.
During the 2000 presidential campaign, sensing that they might soon
have an alumnus in the White House, Little League officials did
some research and found the four original rosters for George W.
Bush's teams from 1955 through 1958. They're now on display on the
After the election
was decided, league officials sent Bush adviser Karen Hughes a package
of information about Little League. The material stressed the old-fashioned
values of the league pledge and suggested that there might be projects
that Little League and the White House could do together. "We
said if there's anything Little League can do for the White House,
just let us know," says league official Lance Van Auken.
As it turned
out, there was. In late March, Van Auken got a call from the White
House saying the president wanted to hold games on the lawn. White
House officials asked Van Auken and Little League to handle most
of the details: picking the teams, rounding up volunteers to provide
equipment, and designing uniforms — both teams are called the South
Lawn Sluggers. Tee ball was chosen not only because of the appeal
of young kids but be cause it would not be possible to play real
baseball on the White House lawn; nobody wanted to worry about hot
foul balls flying all over the place.
the games on March 30, when he hosted a White House reception for
members of baseball's Hall of Fame. The gathering was an occasion
for Bush to wax lyrical, at least for him, about the game. "Everyone
who loves baseball can remember the first time he saw the inside
of a real major-league park with real big-league players,"
Bush said, describing the first game he ever saw, at the Polo Grounds
in the 1950s. "It stays with you forever: the greenness of
the grass, the sight of major leaguers in uniform, the sound of
a big-league swing meeting a big-league pitch.
small way, maybe we can help to preserve the best of baseball right
here in the house that Washington built," Bush continued. "After
we moved in, I pointed out to a great baseball fan, the First Lady,
that we've got a pretty good-sized backyard here. And maybe with
the help of some of [the] groundskeepers, we could play ball on
the South Lawn. . . . So for the next four seasons, we're going
to invite kids here from the area to play tee ball on the South
Lawn of the White House."
In May, two
days before the first game, Bush discussed his hopes for tee ball
when he hosted a White House reception for the World Series champion
New York Yankees. Telling the players that the games would be "a
chance . . . to celebrate the great sport of baseball," Bush
then gave the world a hint about the game's place in the presidential
worldview. "Yankee Stadium is hallowed grounds," Bush
told the team. "So is the White House."
When Bush first announced the tee-ball games, he met with a certain
amount of derision from the talking-head corps. "It's obviously
a public-relations stunt," political scientist and pundit Larry
Sabato told the Los Angeles Times. "Bush used to say
that he will restore honor and integrity to the White House. Now
he should amend that and say he's restoring honor, integrity, and
the 1950s to the White House."
Sabato was echoing a common liberal critique of Bush as a man determined
to return America to the 1950s. Maureen Dowd has called him "Eisenhower
with hair." Molly Ivins has called him "President Let's-Bring-Back-the-1950s."
And dozens of other critics have suggested Bush wants to "turn
back the clock" to an earlier era.
As silly as
that commentary seems, the critics have a point — although it's
one they might not want to acknowledge. When they talk about the
1950s, they conjure up a politically correct nightmare of racial
injustice, sexual repression, and gender inequality. But Bush's
1950s is something else entirely. It's the Little League pledge
(which was, indeed, written in the '50s by then — Little League
president Peter McGovern). It's God, country, and fair play — things
George W. Bush learned about in the first decade of his life. For
Bush, Midland Little League was in the '50s. That first, magical
visit to the Polo Grounds was in the '50s. And his most treasured
baseball heroes played during that time. "I'm just a little
biased toward those of you who played back in the '50s," Bush
told the Hall of Famers in March. "It was my prime as a baseball-card
collector . . ."
of '50s values also has a political usefulness for Bush. It's no
accident that the tee-ball games are produced by the White House
Office of Communications, which is responsible for helping shape
Bush's message on a wide variety of topics. In this case, advertising
the image of a president with take-me-out-to-the-ballpark values
is a powerful part of Bush's campaign to differentiate himself from
his predecessor. While Bush's supporters believe he returned honor
and dignity to the Oval Office simply by moving in, the tee-ball
program illustrates the extent to which, after more than six months
in office, the Bush White House still wants to make sure everyone
knows that George W. Bush is the opposite of Bill Clinton.
clear that America thinks this is a president who's honest, who
has dignity and character," explains an administration official.
"They've had enough of the last eight years. Because of all
the foolishness that was happening in the White House back then,
tee ball is almost like a wave of fresh air. The picture was on
the front page of every major paper — Los Angeles Times,
New York Times, Washington Post. The point is, tee
ball isn't the reason people like him, but it's initiatives like
this . . . that show the wholesomeness factor and will allow him
to be one of the more successful presidents.
Garretson hit it off with George W. Bush right away. A northern
Virginia construction manager, Garretson is a coach in what is called
the "Challenger Little League," a special Little League
program for disabled kids, and his team took part in a White House
tee-ball game in July. "A more sincere person, I don't think
I've ever met," says Garretson, who, like Bush, was a catcher
in Little League years ago. "We talked about the past, about
what it was like catching back then, about our flannel uniforms,
which were hot as the dickens."
and coaches report the same sort of reception at the White House;
so far, tee ball has been a very big hit. And it's still going on.
In addition to having Bush visit the Little League World Series
in August — a first for a sitting president — the White House plans
one more South Lawn game for September, and then it's on to planning
for next year. "These games will go on for four years, and
hopefully eight," says an administration official. "It's
a natural fit for the president."
It's a natural
fit because everybody knows Bush loves baseball. What is likely
to be a less natural fit is the upcoming "Communities of Character"
campaign — which, in its political aspect, will be an attempt to
increase Bush's popular support at a time when he will be engaged
in knock-down, drag-out fights with Congress over the budget, patients'
rights, and other contentious issues. The irony of a White House
beginning a series of quintessentially Clintonian initiatives —
even as it tries to stress the contrast between George W. Bush and
Bill Clinton — has not been lost on Bush's critics in both political
parties. Beyond that, there are worries about whether Bush can pull
it off. While Clinton — who used small-bore initiatives to help
distract the public from the scandals that engulfed his presidency
— had the salesmanship to push programs that meant little to him,
Bush does not.
what makes tee ball unique: It means a lot to George W. Bush.
When he's using baseball to preach about values, Bush has a genuine
passion that cannot be readily transferred to other topics. Sure,
encouraging grandparents to use e-mail to correspond with their
grandchildren — one of the Communities of Character initiatives
— is a worthwhile idea. But if Bush wants to make a genuine statement
about values — straight from his heart, as he might say — perhaps
he should stick to tee ball.