Politician as jock: a winning tradition

Many an electee knows the thrill of cleated victory

Campaign Culture

October 13, 2002|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

As campaign volunteers milled about in a southwest Baltimore parking lot before a door-to-door literature drop, Bob Ehrlich took control.

"Huddle up! Huddle up!" he cried. "OK," he said, his arms stretched across T-shirted backs. "We're going to split up in groups. You guys take one side of the street. You take the other. We'll be right behind you."

Ehrlich, the former linebacker, was playing quarterback - exactly the role he's hoping to play in Annapolis next year.

Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. is a Republican and a gubernatorial candidate. Before anything else, however, he is an athlete. A high school and college football star, he works out almost every day, either at home or at Gold's Gym. He still plays tennis and golf. Especially golf.

Ehrlich is not an athlete in the mold of former U.S. Sen. Bill ("I used to be a basketball great but I don't especially want to talk about it now") Bradley. Ehrlich is still very much the kind of guy you may remember from college, always calling out to his athlete buddies from across the quad. Even now, when he sees his pals on the campaign trail or on Capitol Hill, he gives them hearty man-hugs, the kind that involve bumping chests and multiple thwacks on the back.

In short, Ehrlich is a jock. And in the ranks of American politicians, he's far from alone. Over the years, the gridiron has produced congressmen like Jack Kemp, Steve Largent and J.C. Watts. Sen. Jim Bunning of Kentucky was a major league baseball pitcher, and Bradley and former Reps. Morris Udall and Tom McMillen (a former Maryland Terp) came from the basketball courts.

Athletics as wholesome American pastime, as proof of sound body and, by extension, sound mind, has also found currency at the White House. With his family's touch-football tradition, John F. Kennedy was perhaps the first of the modern presidents with a sporty image, followed by Ford, Carter and Reagan (Johnson had a heart condition). The nation has watched Bill Clinton and George W. Bush (former owner of the Texas Rangers) jog.

Sports alone may never have gotten anyone elected, but it has probably helped. In Ehrlich's case, it immediately connects him to any fellow sports lover, and exempts him from Ivy League snobbery: He may have graduated from the Gilman School and Princeton University, but he got there largely due to his football prowess.

A fit opponent

His Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, is no athletic slouch, though her image is certainly not that of a jock. Growing up, she sailed, played tennis, and was on the Harvard ski team. As a girl, she was an accomplished equestrian. But like Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis before her, Townsend risks charges of elitism if she plays up her horsy past. That could be why her campaign Web site devotes many paragraphs to fitness pursuits that undercut that image.

At the Putney boarding school in Vermont, the site says, "Kathleen helped build dormitories, muck out cow stalls at 5 a.m., and engaged in heavy labor. Kathleen loved the exhausting physical regimen, and today, she is still a vigorous outdoor enthusiast. Last summer, to celebrate her fiftieth birthday, Kathleen climbed 14,100 feet to the summit of Mount Rainier, the most heavily glaciated peak in the contiguous United States. She has participated in other vigorous mountain climbs, including the Matterhorn."

In his race against Townsend, Ehrlich has not been playing up his sporting persona - although he has teased her publicly about the time she cheered the Ravens for scoring a "football."

"It's not as relevant for me as it was, obviously, when I was 21," he said recently of athletics. "Of course it's not the focal point of my life. [But] it's important. Golf is very important."

And in some instances, his sporting image has served him well. In Congress, he is one of a handful of GOP deputy whips chosen by House Speaker Dennis Hastert, whom he considers a friend. Asked how he got to know Hastert, Ehrlich explained: "He's an old coach - football and wrestling."

And Ehrlich's coveted seat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee is thanks in part to his having played golf years before with Rep. Michael G. Oxley of Ohio, then committee chairman.

While he separates his sporting life from his professional life, he says, "There's carryover: Preparation. Competition. Winning and losing. Discipline."

Republicans are hoping those qualities will resonate with voters next month.

"To tell you the truth, the Republican Party in this state is not known for its athletic prowess," said David Blumberg, former chairman of Baltimore's GOP central committee. "For Bobby, this is like a sports event - it's always like third and three."

You can't spend much time around Ehrlich without sports butting in. He speaks in sports metaphors, and athletic images are part of his campaign.

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