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Exclusive Excerpt: Ike's Bluff

Ike's Bluff book cover
Little, Brown and Company
Ike's Bluff, By Evan Thomas (Buy it)

In Ike's Bluff: President Eisenhower's Secret Battle to Save the World, Evan Thomas shows Dwight Eisenhower to be a suprisingly acute tactician who was cold-blooded and brilliant at manipulating others in Washington, Moscow and Beijing. The book also offers a glimpse into Ike's love of golf, as we learn in these three passages.

From Chapter 2, "The Card Player"
On February 7, 1953, Eisenhower wanted to play golf “very, very badly,” as his secretary, Ann Whitman, put it in her diary. The day was cold and rainy, and Ike kept wandering out of the Oval Office onto the porch by the Rose Garden to stare up at the clouds. “Sometimes,” he told Whitman, “I feel so sorry for myself I could cry.”

Whitman knew her boss was not entirely exaggerating. It may have been the middle of winter, and Eisenhower had been in office less than three weeks, but golf was vital to him. Barred by his image-conscious handlers from venturing out on the links during the presidential campaign, he had been anxious to play as a way of dealing with the pressures of his work. Eisenhower had a healthy respect for the physical and mental toll exacted on the men who had occupied the Oval Office before him. “That damn job,” he called the presidency when he was still a lowly staff officer in the 1930s, based in Washington. “Hell, the job killed [Woodrow] Wilson,” Ike had exclaimed to Mamie. As president, Eisenhower brought the same discipline to relaxation that he applied to everything else.

Golf was essential to his daily routine. When he awakened in the morning, he limbered up by taking a few swings in his bedroom with his favorite eight-iron.

He sometimes swung the club when dictating to Mrs. Whitman. At 5:00 p.m. he would rise from Teddy Roosevelt’s old Navy Department desk in the Oval Office, put on his golf shoes, and head out the door, leaving tiny spike holes in the floorboards. On the Ellipse, the greensward stretching south from the White House toward the Washington Monument, he would practice fairway approach shots. His faithful valet (or as he was known in military parlance, his striker), Sergeant John Moaney, would shag the balls while tourists peered through the iron fence.

Eisenhower teed off for a full round of golf about eight hundred times in his eight years as president. Almost every Wednesday and Saturday afternoon, he played three-hour, eighteen-hole rounds at Burning Tree, an all-male club in the Maryland suburbs. On twenty-three trips to Georgia, he played roughly two hundred times at Augusta National, where friends built him, on the 10th hole, a spacious three-story house known initially as Mamie’s Cabin, then more commonly as the Eisenhower Cabin. (Mamie herself never played but approved of the game as a stress reliever for her husband.) Ike was a respectable weekend golfer, usually shooting in the 80s, but he had a congenital fade and an unreliable putter, and he sometimes blew up with a torrent of hells and damnations. (Ike almost never used stronger language, and he disapproved of off-color stories. He would turn and walk away if a friend unwittingly tried a dirty joke.) The United States Professional Golf Association helped build a putting green and sand trap outside his office on the South Lawn in 1954. In the spring of 1955, when some unruly squirrels created divots in the green, Ike ordered them shot. Eisenhower was accustomed to having his wishes become commands, but in this case the offending animals were caught and removed.

From Chapter 5, "Gentleman's Agreement"
Like most of official Washington, Eisenhower was eager to get away from the capital as August approached. He liked to take long summer vacations -- a week or two in August and two or three more weeks in September. He went to the Rockies to fish and to Newport, Rhode Island, for the sea breezes, and he played as much golf as possible in both places. He was unapologetic about his vacations or his frequent trips to the links (including his regular Wednesday afternoon game at Burning Tree, in Washington). Jacob Potofsky, president of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America, told the president after visiting the Oval Office one day, "You know, Mr. President, we're keeping track of the number of times you play golf." As aides cringed, Ike smiled and said, "You go right ahead. I only wish I could play more."

Eisenhower did not exactly bring a relaxed temperament to recreation. In Panama in the 1920s, he tried to learn the game of tennis on the private court of his mentor General Fox Conner. He could not master the strokes, and he alarmed Mamie by, as she recalled, “beat[ing] his head literally against the wall.” He picked up golf more easily, and as an army officer he had plenty of time to master the game in the slow peacetime years between the wars. “Golf ran the army,” recalled John Eisenhower. “At Leavenworth [the Command and General Staff College], officers scheduled their classes around the four hours a day they needed for golf.”

Golf had never been mere recreation for Ike. It began as one more way to get ahead in the army, to ingratiate himself with other officers (especially after he stopped beating them at poker). But it became much more. The popular impression of Ike lazily whiling away his hours on the greens was a serious misperception. Golf for Ike, though he craved it, was grim. He was not highly skilled at the game (at least as measured by the standards of a perfectionist) and not much fun to play with. But he pursued it relentlessly.

For all his affability and capacity for humility, Ike craved control. In his daily life, he tried to control congressmen, his own advisers, and other politicians, allies, and Russians. Of course, he could not truly control them, any more than he could control his temper. So, as often as he could, he escaped to try to control a golf ball. That was equally maddening; golf is a notoriously fickle game, a mental nightmare for duffers and even more so for pros whose psyches are at all fragile. It is a contest at which even the greatest players suffer the “yips,” an inexplicable inability to stroke a little white ball in a (more or less) straight line to a hole in the ground. A good but not great athlete, Eisenhower tortured himself at a game that possessed him.

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