The Real Reason Eliot Spitzer Fell: Tennis


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A new book by Eliot Spitzer's longtime friend and senior adviser Lloyd Constantine apparently offers an offbeat—and for this beat, intriguing—explanation for the former New York governor's political demise amids a prostitution scandal in 2008.

According to the New York Times:

Mr. Constantine offers one diagnosis for Mr. Spitzer's tempestuous behavior that perhaps only a wealthy Manhattanite could suggest: acute lack of tennis. Mr. Spitzer dropped his weekly game with Mr. Constantine in 2006, worried that a tender hamstring would cause him to hobble on the campaign trail. That "deprived Eliot of an important physical release," Mr. Constantine writes.

The only previous connection I can recall being made between the two extracurricular pursuits involved here was when Kennedy biographer Richard Reeves compared JFK's womanizing to tennis, saying that the former "took less time and it was easier to get a partner." And this may be the first time that insufficient dedication to a sport is credited with negative political consequences. Invariably it has been the other way around.

The best example of how sports can negatively impact a politician's career is a game that has been a particular presidential favorite: golf. President Eisenhower's devotion to the game was so ardent that it inspired a host of barbs from Democrats. "He spends a lot of time on the golf course" became a common theme. Eisenhower faithfully played rounds on Wednesday and Saturday at Washington area country clubs, leading Democrats to charge that he neglected more pressing business and joke that he was putting in a 36-hole work week.

At a 1954 press conference in Georgia, home of the Augusta National Club where Eisenhower often vacationed, two-time Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson predicted that the Democrats would "shoot 108—out in 52, back in 56." And in his unsuccessful 1956 challenge to Eisenhower, Stevenson promised a more vigorous foreign policy saying, "it takes more than golf scores to inspire peoples with a common will to struggle for a better, safer world." He went on to list a host of crises that, he said, erupted while Eisenhower was "away golfing."

In his own more successful 1960 presidential campaign, Democratic candidate John F. Kennedy similarly played the golf card, without having to aim directly at the resiliently popular Eisenhower. Instead, he repeatedly quoted from T.S. Eliot's poem "The Rock" (hardly the usual fodder for presidential oratory whether Democratic or Republican): "And the wind shall say: 'These were decent people. Their only monument the asphalt road and a thousand lost golf balls.'"

"We can do better than that," Kennedy would then conclude to cheers and laughter. No doubt the crack at Eisenhower was more readily grasped than the identity of the poet.

Not that the sport hasn't caused trouble for Democratic presidents who have also shared the golf bug. After eight years of Democratic potshots at his golfing predecessor, Kennedy's problem was concealing his own ability at the game. In fact, he was a better golfer than Eisenhower and was much relieved when he narrowly missed a hole in one during the 1960 campaign, telling his playing partner that "if that ball had gone into that hole, in less than an hour the word would be out to the nation that another golfer was trying to get into the White House." And President Obama has recently found himself under fire from his admirers for spending more time on the links (outdoing George W. Bush) than on the basketball courts that figured so prominently during his campaign.

What about tennis as a prudent presidential pastime? It is true that Jimmy Carter was said to have been so obsessed with detail that, according to former speech writer James Fallows in the May 1979 issue of The Atlantic, "during the first six months in office, [he] would personally review all requests to use the White House tennis court." But considering the hazards of golf, maybe tennis can be recommended to politicians as "safe sport."