When President Obama takes British Prime Minister David Cameron to Dayton, Ohio, on Tuesday he won't be the first president to drag a foreign leader to an American sporting event. Nor will it be the first time a foreign public has struggled to understand the ways of rabid American sports fans. Already, London’s tabloids have begun to carefully explain such uniquely Yankee terms as “bracketology,” "Sweet 16," and "Final Four."
Within hours of the White House announcement that the two leaders will attend a game in the first round of the NCAA basketball tournament, the questioning had begun. “What is this March Madness that Prime Minister David Cameron is getting involved in?” The Telegraph inquired. Their answer, in part, was that the NCAA tournament is all about “wanting to bond psychologically with others.”
Basketball is not huge in the United Kingdom, whose team has not qualified for the Olympics since 1948. And Cameron is known more as a fan of cricket, tennis, and soccer. But at least he knows the rules of the game, and it is a sport that is played at home. That gives him a big advantage over some of the foreign leaders who have been subjected to distinctly American games while visiting the United States in the past. Pity poor Queen Elizabeth II and Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak, who didn’t know even the basics of baseball when President George H.W. Bush insisted on adding America’s national pastime to their official itineraries when they came calling. Or Deng Xiaoping in 1979 or Margaret Thatcher and Toshiki Kaifu in 1990 when the Chinese leader, British prime minister, and Japanese prime minister were confronted with cowboy hats, bucking broncos, and steer-roping competitions at Texas rodeos.
The answer is rarely "no" when a foreign leader is invited by a president to visit his home or join him in something as casual and personal as a game. One goal of diplomacy is always to get to know a president better and build a personal relationship. In recent years, there is only one known example of a foreign leader rejecting a presidential invitation. That was when the famously standoffish French President Francois Mitterrand refused to join President George H.W. Bush for a ride in his sleek and speedy cigarette boat while visiting the Bush compound in Kennebunkport, Me.
The elder Bush was the all-time presidential champion when it came to such invitations. Though there have been several sports fanatics in the Oval Office since World War II – Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush at the top of the list – George H.W. Bush put them all to shame in the way he tried to intertwine his dual loves of sports and diplomacy. Bush ran foreign leaders through his Kennebunkport compound, offering to take on one and all in the horseshoe pit, the fight to snare the biggest fish, or pilot his boat the fastest. When not in Maine, he took them to outside competitions, often drawing confused looks.
Certainly Queen Elizabeth looked a little perplexed when she found herself standing in a dugout at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium on April 10, 1991, shaking hands with players like Jose Canseco before a game. It was her first baseball game ever, and she stayed for only two innings. She had said she wanted to view something that represented the “epitome of America” and this was Bush’s answer. She didn’t sample a National Bohemian, the official beer of the Orioles. But she did dine on crab cakes and hot dogs. She even smiled through a brutal rendition of “God Save the Queen” by a high school chorus. Play-by-play announcer Ken Levine later lamented that he couldn’t get her to run through the “Esskay Meats out-of-town scoreboard.” The other announcer, Jon Miller, adapted his play-by-play for the occasion, announcing one called third strike as: “It was the umpire that shrieked, the fatal bellman, which gives the sternest goodnight.”
When Mubarak joined Bush at an Orioles game, on April 4, 1989, he was even more perplexed. But he donned an Orioles cap, ate a hot dog with horseradish and sipped a Coke from a plastic souvenir cup while scanning a lineup typed on White House stationery.
Baseball was one of George H. W. Bush’s great loves. But he also wanted to introduce foreign leaders to his other love of all things Texan. So when Houston hosted the 1990 allied economic summit – the precursor of today’s G-8 summits -- Bush persuaded several of the leaders to arrive a day early and join him at a rodeo. Some of the leaders – most obviously Japan’s Kaifu and Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney – seemed to love the outing, waving their new cowboy hats and cheering every bucking bronco. Britain’s Thatcher, whose husband got in the spirit by wearing a checkered cowboy shirt, seemed only to be enduring the humiliation. She watched every step she took very closely, no doubt aware of offerings from the horses and bulls. And none of the leaders were quite sure how to react when a stunt planned for the playing of the National Anthem went awry. A rider atop a horse and carrying an American flag rose out of a giant red, white, and blue cowboy boot as the anthem began. But the special elevator malfunctioned and the rider, the horse and the flag slowly sank deep inside the boot and disappeared, prompting laughter throughout the arena.
Other leaders reciprocate by inviting U.S. presidents to sporting competitions overseas. And those, at times, trigger laughter as well. In 1991, George H.W. Bush ventured to Japan on a trip best remembered for the president throwing up on the Japanese prime minister. Almost forgotten is what Bush did the day before when he was taken to an exhibition of the ancient Japanese sport of Kemari. The sport is played by colorfully garbed players who stand in a circle and kick around a flaccid deerskin ball patched together with horsehide tape and covered with powder. Players shout out names of gods while playing. But they were unprepared for what Bush did – he suddenly entered the circle and started kicking the ball and bouncing it off his head. It was a new twist to a game invented in the sixth century.
Of course, other presidents try to bond over competitions that are not quite team sports. That was the case when President Clinton in 1996 invited German Chancellor Helmut Kohl to what became known as the Sausage Summit at a diner in a German neighborhood of Milwaukee. The White House reported that the lunch began with barbecued chicken and ribs as an appetizer, followed by vegetable-meatball soup. Then steak. And lemon chicken. And meat loaf. And hash browns and green beans. All before dessert of apple pie. “It’s ugly in there,” reported White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry when he left the diner. “Food is flying all over the place.”
That, of course, was years before eating competitions became professional events. But it sets a standard that will be hard for Obama and Cameron to top on Tuesday in Dayton.