As I will miss my first league night of the season next Monday to attend the inauguration of the 44th president of the United States, I thought it would be fitting to honor Barack Obama with a brief history of presidential bowling. After all, one of the least effective moments of the otherwise impressive campaign was his visit to the Pleasant Valley Lanes in Altoona, PA on March 29, 2008. Obama rolled his way to a 37, a score that can be obtained by most folks while bowling blindfolded. Unfortunately, he was trying to impress the blue collar voters of the Keystone State. Obama went on to lose Pennsylvania to Hillary in the primary. His poor performance at bowling is rumored to have been the cause. Obama was not the first president to try his luck at bowling, nor the first to embarrass himself in the process. I begin with the 33rd president of the United States, the man from the Show Me State, Harry S. Truman because it was under Truman that the bowling alley was first installed at the White House, but the history of presidential bowling can be traced back at least to Abe Lincoln’s days in the U.S. House of representatives as reported in the June 13, 1928 Washington Post.
33. Harry S. Truman - The story of the White House bowling begins with Harry Truman searching the basement of the West Wing in 1947. He discovered a long narrow storage area and felt that it would be a good space for a bowling lane. Truman was not a big fan of bowling himself, but he felt that it might be useful for the recreation of White House staff and a way to maintain morale. An aide to the President, Major General Harry Vaughn determined that it would cost roughly $7500 to install a lane in the space, but found a manufacturer willing to do it for the paltry sum of $5000 given the proposed location. To fund the alley, Vaughn raised funds from Truman’s friends, mostly folks from Kansas City, and the lanes (two of them) were presented to the president on the occasion of his 63rd birthday on May 8, 1947. Truman reportedly rolled a 7 on the first ball thrown in the White House, but apparently did not bowl much again.
34. Dwight D. Eisenhower- The bowling habits of the WWII general turned president remain unclear. According to the Jan. 17, 1953 edition of the Washington Post, three days prior to his inauguration, Eisenhower’s intent was to remove the bowling alley because representatives of the president elect were “appalled by the lack of space in the White House Executive Office.” The same story reports that the White House bowling league, consisting of eight teams of “policemen (who have three teams), chauffeurs, stenographers, mimeographers, and others,” would be displaced. Clearly the Eisenhower administration did not have their priorities correctly prioritized. In 1955, the lanes were moved to the Executive Office Building, where they remain today. The location of the original bowling alley is now occupied by the Situation Room.
35. John F. Kennedy – Little is known of the bowling habits of JFK. According to the July 21, 1970 Washington Post, “President John F. Kennedy and his family rarely used the lanes, preferring other sports.”
36. Lyndon B. Johnson- The Texan who took over the Oval Office after the 1963 assassination of John Kennedy was an occasional bowler, but Lady Bird Johnson was apparently the first member of the first family to regularly take up the sport. She was serious enough to have her own custom drilled bowling ball. This photo shows her bowling with her son-in-law, Patrick Nugent. According to the Post on March 26, 1966, she preferred to swim, but the heated pool of the White House wreaked havoc on her hair, not good when one has a busy public life. She reportedly bowled three to four times a week and was happy with a score of 130 or higher.
37. Richard M. Nixon- The Nixon administration marked the Golden Age of Presidential Bowling and the Dark Age of the Presidency. Richard Milhous Nixon was an avid bowler. Nixon bowled frequently, both in the Executive Office Building and at the bowling alley at Camp David, a two lane facility. Nixon preferred bowling to golf because it could be done quickly in the gaps in his schedule. According to the Washington Post’s July 21, 1970 edition, Nixon’s average was a closely guarded state secret but purportedly was in the range of 165-200.
38. Gerald Ford- With Nixon’s resignation and the decline of the American presidency, presidential bowling declined as well. Not much is known of the bowling habits of presidents 38 through 40. Either Gerald Ford felt it was best to not emulate the habits of his former Commander-in-Chief, or the press lost interest in covering the benign habits of the Executives. I can’t imagine why.
39. Jimmy Carter – According to one website, bowling is one of Carter’s favorite sports. Other than that, good ol’ Jimmy’s bowling habits are a mystery.
40. Ronald Reagan – Like his predecessor, it is unknown whether Ronald Reagan enjoyed to roll balls toward pins. I was able to find a gem of a photo of the Gipper at the lanes with his first wife, Jane Wyman.
41. George H. W. Bush – The first of the Bushes was not much of a bowler. He was an avid sportsmen, but apparently bowling was not one of his favorites. Bush Sr. was the first president to perform a bowling faux pas. On April 11, 1984 while campaigning as Vice President, Bush visited a bowling alley in Milwaukee and fell onto his knees trying to pick up a single pin spare. This moment has been forever enshrined in the annals of YouTube:
42. William Jefferson Clinton – According to Dick Evans, Slick Willy was an "avid junior bowler" with a 160 average and apparently used the White House lanes quite a bit. By 1994, his average was down to 140.
43. George W. Bush – I wouldn’t be surprised if the Dubya is a decent bowler, but it is difficult to know. Here is some video of the 43rd president chucking a turkey at some bottles of Coke. I was able to glean two other bits of bowling trivia on the shrub. In October of 2000, while campaigning in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, he visited the Ebonite factory and was presented with a red, white, and blue bowling ball. He also made a campaign stop at the Leda Lanes in Nashua New Hampshire to try his hand at candlepins, as shown in the picture here.
44. Barack Obama – In addition to his 37, Obama has talked on numerous occasions of pulling an “Eisenhower”. The president elect’s love of basketball is no secret, and I applaud his hoops habit. Unfortunately, B Ob’s loves to “joke” about replacing the Presidential Bowling Alley with a basketball court. What would this say to the bowlers of America, Mr. Obama, especially the bowlers like yourself, who lack skill, the very bowlers who maintain this blog. Listen, Mr. New President, I’m a big fan, but you’re the president. You can have your hoop dream and work on your bowling game. When you're president, you can have all the recreation facilities you want. Don’t replace one hardwood with another. And by the way, if you are looking to create the Department of Bowling and are looking for a Secretary of Bowling, give me a call.
A word of advice to bowling presidents: When you do bowl, take off your tie and have a beer.
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