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RBR Reading Room: Chris Cillizza’s “Power Players” tries to humanize the office of President

A glib look at the Presidency through sports

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President Obama Hosts The College Football Playoff National Champion Alabama Crimson Tide Photo by Olivier Douliery/Getty Images

In this space, I frequently begin with a prefatory remark about preexisting biases, and I do so again today: I’ve never liked Chris Cillizza; or at the least, I have preferred his work when he’s sticking with the reporter’s talismanic Five W’s. But as a political analyst, I think he is remarkably glib. His contributions to CNN’s editorial desk rarely engaged a serious student of politics, and though a solid mechanical writer, he lacks the persuasive ability of the country’s best polemicists. In other words, he is a good reporter and a solid writer who was elevated to a position that doesn’t suit him, that of a mediocre editorialist.

His is the voice of “normies” — those who have a passing interest in politics, but not the time and depth of engagement to pore over every move in DC like it’s the Zapruder film. It is a voice of the Broad Consensus: that partially engaged center-left to center-right everyman catered to by neoliberal governments of the West for the last 80 years. John in Cedar Rapids, Jacques in Lyon, Jack in Manchester, Jan in Viborg.

But that is also the largest market in society, too. So, you must be aware of that target audience when that reading this; it will cater to the everyman sports fan and the normie political observer.

This is the lens I had to shuck as I came into the most recent book by Mr. Cillizza: Power Players: Sports, Politics, and the American Presidency (Apr. 18, 2023 Twelve, ISBN 1538720604).

But, once I consciously set aside my general disdain for Cillizza’s political works, I must confess that I actually did enjoy this book.

Give Cillizza credit for this: Power Players is marketed as a look at the American Presidency through their relationship with sports. And it delivers admirably well.

The editorial tone, such as there is one, is vintage Cillizza. It is blandly centrist. But while that does not necessarily always work in political analysis, it is spot-on in this context. No one needs to know one’s thoughts about the invasion of Iraq to understand George W. Bush’s love of MLB and his burning desire to become the Major League Commissioner. You need good factual reporting, covered fairly, and conveyed in a manner such that the broadest audience possible has an understanding of that dynamic.

Nailed it.

One doesn’t need to understand the political and policy wisdom of the ACA’s shared risk pools to get a handle on how remarkably competitive a notoriously-perfectionist Barack Obama was. But that is exactly where Power Players shines.

We know Barack Obama carved out a reputation in Chicago as a man who throws political elbows. But it was also a reputation that was borne from his lifelong love of basketball. He was called the first NBA president for a reason not having anything to do with his skin color or age. He was bodying up Secret Service agents in the post at age 51, throwing literal elbows the morning of his State of the Union address.

We’ve had our share of jock Presidents: from an uber-athletic John F. Kennedy, who massaged his youthful image to upstage a sweaty, soft Richard Nixon; an intentional contrast that also sold a virility masking his many health issues. We had the derring-do of Teddy Roosevelt, who would lace up the gloves and pop you with a left hook, or take you halfway across the world to go hunting. We had a wide receiver “who was the best player on our team,” a guy that couldn’t speak because of a terrible stutter but took out his aggression on the gridiron. That same guy currently occupies the White House: Joe Biden was described by his coaches as a tough kid who worked hard, made everyone around him better, and had “more balls than sense.”

We learn about the apolitical nature of some Presidents, like LBJ, who resorted to the only common ground they could find with others and still peddle influence and glad-hand: golf.

And, man, we’ve had some very good golfers in the White House. If Obama was the first NBA President, then Trump was the first PGA President. According to Cillizza’s interviews with Golf Digest, Donald Trump is presently the 12th ranked player in the DC area, with a stated handicap of 2.8. Though he is “a notorious golf cheat, with a true handicap between 4 and 6,” he’s also a “self-taught natural, who is very good off the tee, rarely finds himself in the rough, and excels at putting the ball in the middle of the fairway.”

If not for MLB’s work stoppage, the man Fay Vincent recommended for Commissioner had a clear path to the job. But the impending strike left owners with uncertainty about breaking in a new man for the job, just as a strike was underway. So, the owners went with MLB attorney and Brewers owner, Bud Selig, as “acting Commissioner.” George W. Bush got bored waiting for baseball’s labor woes to relent, so he decided to do something different — he went into politics. America would be a very different-looking place today had Bush waited just seven more weeks. But, by the time the CBA was signed, Bush was on the campaign trail, polling well, and crushing his GOP opposition. Just seven years later, he was the President.

Who needs sports when you’ve got the ultimate championship trophy, huh?

Then there are the cynical bastards out there. And, it won’t surprise you to know that Richard M. Nixon was very high on the list. His stated love of football during the infamous 1969 Arkansas-Texas game was very much calculated to appeal to hard-line anti-communists and American traditionalists.

But Nixon’s vice-president just six feet away cared far more: Gerald Ford was not only a football fan, he was a damned good player. At Michigan, Ford was a starter on the offensive line for the Wolverines en route to two national titles. He was voted team captain and MVP. Ford was such a good player, that he had to decline offers from the NFL to instead attend Yale Law School. It was a decision that worked out pretty well for Ford, but you get the sense as competitive as he was, that Ford would have found success in the Silver Age NFL as well.

And so it goes, for 346 brisk, well-paced pages. Cillizza has written a book that is engaging, informative, and above all, just fun. It’s one about politics, but not Politics (tm). And in many ways, it echoes some of the best parts of America that we too often seem to forget, or are even sprinting away from.

Go lounge by the pool, or take this one to the airport with you. It’s a nice summer read that taxes neither your patience, your politics, nor your knowledge of sports.

Power Players is Cillizza doing what he actually does best: reporting and a crafting an easily digestible narrative using well-sourced, solid facts and interesting anecdotes.

I recommend it.

Power Players is available April 18th at all major book retailers.