So much for the wimp factor.
That tag for the late President George H.W. Bush took a whiff when Curry Kirkpatrick of Hilton Head Island wrote about him for Sports Illustrated.
It was a rare opportunity: Spend two days with the president on vacation at the family compound in Kennebunkport, Maine. How often does that happen? And then things got crazy.
The first stab at it was postponed by the Gulf War after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait.
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And when the story — “Playing in the Bush Leaugue: The sporting life of President Bush 41” — came out on Aug. 19, 1991, it didn’t make the cover.
“It was the middle of August, nothing’s going on,” Kirkpatrick said in 2015 when his story was listed among the top 60 published in the magazine’s first 60 years.
“But that weekend this fat hillbilly from Arkansas, John Daly, comes out of nowhere to win the PGA Championship, and they put him on the cover instead of the president of the United States!”
The “Prez at Play” cover that never saw the light of day still hangs on Kirkpatrick’s wall on Hilton Head, where he has lived since 1978.
And he looks back on it as the most unusual thing to happen in 27 years at the magazine, mostly covering tennis and college basketball.
He found at Kennebunkport an ultra-competitive man egged on by a trash-talking first lady, not acting like a 67-year-old — or a wimp.
“It was like a family gathering,” Kirkpatrick told Sports Illustrated in 2015. “Barbara was really cool. She’s the all-time trash talker of the bunch. She just destroyed me and my tennis game. She would kid me about being from Hilton Head, and say, ‘I know by your clothes you’re an elitist.’ “
Barbara Bush made a contest out of picking blueberries with her grandchildren and her dog, Millie. “Whoever filled their bucket first was the champion,” the first lady said.
This was not the family he’d seen on TV.
It started with golf. It ended with swimming. In between, the Bush sporting vacation was a blur that left a staff member telling Kirkpatrick, “He’s playing singles, while we’re drinking doubles.”
Kirkpatrick rode along for the president’s golf game, or as somebody called it, “cart polo.”
“When his staffers ask whether POTUS broke 90, they’re talking minutes, not strokes,” Kirkpatrick wrote. Bush proudly told him of his golf record: a round in 1 hour and 18 minutes.
Bush, we learned, at one time had an 11 handicap, but at other times had the yips.
“Golf clears the mind,” Bush told Kirkpatrick. “I don’t concentrate too much out here. I’m in it for the competition, the camaraderie. Maybe if I did play slower ... I’ve sort of phased back into golf as a protection against old age.”
At 8 o’clock the next morning, it was off into the sea that beat relentlessly against the rocky shore of the 11-acre Walker Point compound established by Bush’s grandfather. He liked to whip the cigarette boat Fidelity around to surprise his passengers with sudden jerks.
Then came tennis.
Kirkpatrick has game, but he boned up with his pro at the Shipyard Racquet Club, Rusty Dyer, on a double-fisted backhand return that they thought would make the left-handed president history.
But in Kennebunkport, they didn’t play singles. And the president played tennis right-handed because his mother, Dorothy, then 90 and sitting courtside looking like a splash of spring, didn’t think her child should be left-handed.
Bush was desperate to win. He and the first lady grilled Kirkpatrick on his game until he said he’d hit balls with Chris Evert, and they could ask her. To which they said they knew Chrissie better than Kirkpatrick, who had to tell them he practically invented Chris Evert, writing about her before she was a teenager. So the president played with Kirkpatrick against his press secretary Marlin Fitzwater and a ringer on staff, Dorrance Smith. Kirkpatrick says today he should have chosen Smith, because he might have won.
When Kirkpatrick played well, Bush said he was “playing them like a Stradivarius.” On his best shot, the president said: “My man! The Hilton Head stylist!” And when Kirkpatrick whiffed the easy overhead, “which I will remember until the day I die,” the leader of the free world told him to shake it off and go get ‘em.
Next came horseshoes, with more razzing from the Bushes, and then the president went swimming with granddhildren, and later back to the golf course.
“I don’t remember sitting down for lunch,” Kirkpatrick said this week.
As he’s watching all the tributes to Bush, who died Nov. 30 at at 94, just seven months after Barbara died, he sees his story in a different light. At the time, he was on deadline. And he convinced himself to write the story like it was any other story.
But Kirkpatrick had discovered a man who seemed so much younger and energetic and focused than the prudent guy who was almost as famous as Dana Carvey, who mocked him on “Saturday Night Live.”
Kirkpatrick discovered a man who invited him to the Oval Office and took 90 minutes, showing him his horsehoe pit where Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf Jr. had almost broken a window, and telling him about every player on his Yale baseball team, when it was supposed to be 20 minutes sandwiched between Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and the NATO commander.
And then came the night Kirkpatrick had to call the White House to say the president had been pushed aside by the big gut of one John Daly.
“He took it so well — like he did everything, I think,” Kirkpatrick recalls.
Kirkpatrick said he’s been thinking this week about how much Bush must have hated losing his re-election bid in 1992 to Bill Clinton.
The man who told him, “Don’t worry about that overhead. You played well. I let you down. We’ll get a rematch. I want those guys,” wrote this in his diary early in the morning after that crushing election night:
“Now into bed, prepared to face tomorrow: Be strong, be kind, be generous of spirit, be understanding and let people know how grateful you are. Don’t get even. Comfort the ones I’ve hurt and let down. Say your prayers and ask for God’s understanding and strength. Finish with a smile and some gusto, and do what’s right and finish strong.”