Men of Action: Obama Sinks 3-Pointers as McCain Hits the Ballpark

Sen. Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic presidential candidate who frequents gyms along the campaign trail and seems able to sink basketball 3-pointers at will, is vacationing near his childhood home in Hawaii, where his skills once earned him the hoops nickname "Barry O'Bomber."

Maybe he'll take advantage of the leisure time to dazzle more crowds with his basketball skills or other physical feats.

"I'm going to go bodysurfing at an undisclosed location," Obama joked as he arrived in Honolulu Friday.

But while Obama's away, his Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain, might play, too. He could take in another baseball game, as he did recently at Yankee Stadium, or practice his professed passion for hiking around his Arizona home.

For as long as there have been presidential campaigns, candidates and presidents have sought to portray themselves as rugged, athletic men or women of action. Some jogged. Some played golf. Some parlayed earlier sports associations into political careers. And some touted physical exploits on the battlefield.

"As far as I can tell, Obama would be our first basketball-playing president," said Richard Waterman, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky, who wrote about presidential image-making in "The Image-Is-Everything Presidency: Dilemmas in American Leadership."

Some speculate that Obama, 47, may be trying to project a Kennedyesque youthfulness through his athletic displays, and perhaps trying to create a contrast with McCain, 71, who would be the oldest president ever elected to a first term.

But as Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., learned during the 2004 campaign for president, athletic abilities don't always give candidates an edge. They can have a downside, too.

After news cameras caught Kerry windsurfing during an unguarded moment on vacation, his Republican foes used the images to argue in an ad that his positions changed with the wind.

Even as McCain hobnobs with sports figures like cyclist Lance Armstrong and New York Yankees manager Joe Girardi, his campaign has taken shots at Obama's athletic image. A recent ad showed Obama sinking a 3-point shot with soldiers in Kuwait, while noting, "He made time to go to the gym but canceled a visit with wounded troops."

Obama also caught flak after rolling gutter balls at a bowling alley this spring. Some analysts believe it might have doomed him in the Pennsylvania Democratic primary.

At the time, John Sayle Watterson, who teaches sports history at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., and wrote "The Games Presidents Play: Sports and the American Presidency," told reporters who asked that he didn't believe Obama's bowling failure would amount to much.

"I said that everybody ... at some time in their careers has thrown a gutter ball," Watterson told "As it turned out, maybe I was wrong. He lost the [primary] election and, really, the electorate was not impressed that he had gone into a bowling alley and tried to be one of them. ... He was out of his environment."

Experts interviewed for this story wondered if even Obama's vaunted basketball skills could come back to haunt him. Perhaps they could play into racial stereotypes or undercut efforts to paint the youthful candidate as presidential.

"Too much basketball would overwhelm the electorate, would detract from his gravitas," Watterson said. "So I wouldn't expect him to be in too many pickup games, at least with the photographers around."

McCain, though much older than Obama and bearing disabilities from his time as a prisoner of war, could tout past physical exploits. But Watterson doesn't expect to see too much of that.

"You may hear a little bit about his wrestling in high school or other things," Watterson said. "If you're a fighter pilot you have to be a pretty good athlete, but I'm not sure that's what he's going to emphasize. ... Nobody's there to see it. And it also leads back, perhaps, to his days at the Naval Academy. And as I understand it, he was extremely rebellious, and that certainly wasn't part of his preparation for the presidency."

Paul F. Boller, author of "Presidential Diversions: Presidents at Play From George Washington to George W. Bush," and a professor emeritus of history at Texas Christian University, sees an increased emphasis on image over substance as a distressing trend in modern campaigns. He said, "Lord, if it's all personality, why don't each of [the candidates] take a screen test?"

Perhaps the trend gained momentum in the '80s when Ronald Reagan, a former actor, took the White House, and Democrat Michael Dukakis was undone in his White House bid partly by a much-ridiculed photo op of himself in a tank.

But even though the focus on prepackaged candidate photo ops may be a recent phenomenon, Boller and others say physical strength and athletics always have been part of presidential image-making.

"Theodore Roosevelt had his picture taken in all sorts of settings, but did not allow himself to be photographed playing tennis because he thought it was too effete," Waterman, the presidential image expert at the University of Kentucky, told via e-mail. "Gerald Ford made much of his reputation as a college football player, as did George H.W. Bush and his stint at first base at Yale. Of course, George W. Bush was the owner of the Texas Rangers. He used that venue to promote his political rise in Texas to the governor's office."

When it came to the jock card, some presidents and candidates rode their physical skills to the hall of fame.

George Washington's reputation as a physically imposing, rugged general likely contributed to his leadership aura, Boller said.

The Kennedys were known for their raucous family touch football games, though in reality John F. Kennedy suffered from a bad back and other ailments.

Reagan was nicknamed "the Gipper," after a football player he portrayed in the movies, and was photographed looking rugged atop a horse.

Even Abraham Lincoln, not exactly remembered as a fine physical specimen today, successfully rode a similar macho-man vibe into office.

"His supporters portrayed him as the great rail splitter," Boller said. "He was good with the ax. He was strong enough to split wood and build fences. That was sort of the image his supporters tried to portray of him. So I'd say that was crucial because it showed he was one with the common man."

Less legendary presidents played the jock card, too.

Some say George H.W. Bush sought to toughen his reputation through athletics.

Though he "had this kind of reputation of being an effete Easterner, he was actually a very talented athlete," James Madison University's Watterson said. "He persistently ran during the campaign and was not reluctant to let the press know that. ... He used athletics to try and make himself into a regular guy."

Richard Nixon, apparently not very athletic, nevertheless was known to exude sporting charm by dazzling people with his knowledge of sports trivia, Boller said.

Unlike Obama, Nixon even had the bowling thing down -- sometimes bowling alone at lanes installed at the White House, Watterson said.

But when it comes to physical fortitude, there also are cases of presidents remembered -- metaphorically speaking -- for their gutter balls.

In 1841, 67-year-old William Henry Harrison sought to prove his youthful toughness by dressing lightly for his inauguration, Boller said, but instead he died of pneumonia later that year.

Franklin Pierce was mocked during the 1852 campaign as "the fainting general" because he'd passed out in battle during the Mexican War -- he managed to win the election anyway.

Herbert Hoover once bobbled a baseball he was supposed to throw out as the first pitch, Boller said.

"They didn't make much of it at the time," Boller added. "It was in the depths of the Depression and people were thinking about other things."

Republican President Eisenhower's golfing outings became a focus of Democratic venom leading into the 1960 campaign. But it turned out that the Democratic candidate also was a golfer.

"[John F. Kennedy] went out of his way to hide his passion for golf," Watterson said. "Once the election was over he came out of the closet, so to speak."

And anybody who watched Chevy Chase on "Saturday Night Live" in the 1970s knew that President Ford was a klutz, right? Not so, many experts say.

"Gerry Ford was one of the most athletic of our presidents," Boller said. "Yet because he slipped once getting off the plane ... the image built up of a guy who could barely walk around. I think it was a bit unfair."

Once elected, presidents have brought their sports passions to the White House.

According to Watterson, Nixon had the bowling lanes, Eisenhower and Clinton installed putting greens, FDR put in a swimming pool and George H.W. Bush put in facilities for horseshoes.

The current President Bush holds tee ball events on the White House lawn and often rides his mountain bike at the Camp David presidential retreat.

So would a President Obama make waves if he installed a basketball court?

Probably not, if it's done on a small scale at little expense, Watterson said.

"I couldn't see a basketball court" indoors, Watterson said. "But if you just put in an outdoor basketball net, who's going to really care? It might get a little publicity, but it wouldn't last long."