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Bush casts a wide net for sports visitors

THE NATION

Fishing champs are latest to join the roster of winners invited to the White House.

March 26, 2008|James Gerstenzang | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — If you can hit, drive or pedal better than anyone else, you've probably been invited to the White House and had your photo taken with President Bush. To football players, race-car drivers and Lance Armstrong, add this: anglers.

On Tuesday, Bush's Oval Office champions were two bass-fishing tournament winners. With Alton Jones, who won $500,000, on one side and Judy Wong, who won $60,000, on the other, the president sought the right words to sum up their achievements.

"I thought it was important to welcome these champs here to the White House so that -- you know, to encourage people to fish. There's nothing better than fishing," said Bush, a sometime-fisherman who stocks a pond on his land near Crawford, Texas.

Presidents have regularly invited sports icons to the White House, in a tradition that dates at least to the 1920s, when the Washington Senators were a winning baseball team and Calvin Coolidge was president.

But as fan in chief, George W. Bush has reached beyond collegiate and professional athletes in football, baseball and basketball to include those who have triumphed on land (cross country), in the water (water polo) and in the air (gymnastics).

To some extent, Bush has made these sports days part of the White House calendar because he likes sports and the enthusiasm his guests bring, say aides and acquaintances.

"The cool thing about being president is you can call anybody and they'll come," said Ron Kaufman, a longtime friend of the Bush family.

There have been female bowlers from Vanderbilt; soccer players from UC Santa Barbara; Stanford golfers; and, from the University of Alaska, champion shooters from the men's and women's rifle teams.

In 2007, according to White House figures, more than 1,000 college athletes, coaches and officials took part. The effort to reach out to winners became so much a part of the White House routine that a staffer was assigned to track the range of NCAA and professional championships and then arrange visits from the winners.

Kevin Sullivan, Bush's communications director, is responsible not only for the big-picture message but also for hooking fishing aficionados.

Thus, the 2008 champions of the Bassmaster Classic and Women's Bassmaster Tour.

"There's huge interest in this thing," Sullivan said.

As a president's term ends, incumbents tend to open up the White House to new visitors, said Kaufman, a senior political advisor in the first Bush White House.

"There is a desire . . . to share the presidency," he said.

White House visits by college athletes can be big news back home. But for the White House, photos with a top angler or NASCAR driver are one way to show a president in touch with sports heroes and pop-culture icons.

President Nixon, who was famously photographed walking on a beach wearing a business suit, was well aware of this.

"Nixon felt it gave him more of a common touch and made him more of a normal guy," said John Watterson, who teaches sports history at James Madison University in Virginia. "Schmoozing with coaches and players -- he felt there was political capital in that."

Bush, who grew up in a family of athletes and owned a piece of the Texas Rangers before entering politics, is clearly at home in the world of sports banter. He appears to have no problem engaging in G-rated locker-room repartee.

Bush took note when Boston Red Sox left-fielder Manny Ramirez, the exception to Kaufman's call-them-and-they-will-come observation, skipped for the second time a White House reception for the World Series champions.

Ramirez begged off a ceremony for the winning 2004 team, saying his grandmother was sick. Last month, Bush said of the star's second absence: "I guess his grandmother died again."

There were no zingers Tuesday as he offered words of support for fishing. Bush pronounced it "a good, clean sport . . . that requires good conservation in order to make sure our fisheries are good."

Jones, with whom Bush went fishing one day before declaring his candidacy for governor of Texas, angled for an invitation to the president's Texas pond. "I'm really not sure who's working who here," Jones said. "I'm hoping to get an invite to fish on his lake in Crawford, and he's looking for a free fishing guide."

The president did not respond to Jones' comment. But he suggested he could perhaps use some tips: "I'm a good fisherman; sometimes I'm a good catcher-man."

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james.gerstenzang@ latimes.com

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