I have reviewed over thirty books since I started the Dr. Bookworm blog last year. I have discussed all sorts of books: Roxane Gay’s Hunger, Lesley Stahl’s Becoming Grandma, Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth, The Little Prince, War and Peace, Donna Leon’s The Temptation of Forgiveness and Richard Power’s The Overstory, to name a few. All this time, I have stayed out of national politics. I have stayed away from Trump. UNTIL NOW.
It’s not as if I’ve lived in a cave since Trump’s inauguration on January 20, 2017. I have been intensely interested as the TV images tumble and jumble together in my mind: toddlers in cages, blue tarped roofs, piles of uncollected garbage, dejected farmers, tiki- torch-bearing marchers. Trump’s actions toward other nations are equally dizzying: leaving the Paris Climate Accords, cozying up to North Korea, Mohammed bin Salman and Putin, shrugging off the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, snubbing NATO, and insults to Justin Trudeau, the Australian Prime Minister and everyone from a “shit hole country.”
I have listened to Sean Spicer, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Kellyanne Conway, John Kelly, Maria Bartiromo, the guys sitting on the couch on Fox and Friends and assorted current and now-fired enablers justify the indefensible. I have heard reporters and ex-officials on TV and the radio tout their tell-all books: Michael Wolff, Omarosa, Bob Woodward, the Team of Vipers guy, James Comey, Andrew McCabe. On and on.
I haven’t wanted to review a book about Trump for two somewhat contradictory reasons. On the one hand, the hanging fruit is so low: gold escalators, porn stars and Playboy bunnies, the Tweets, the Prince of Whales and Covfefe. He’s a boor.
The other reason is the fire hose of misdoings, so many that it’s boring to have to list them. And the lies! How to keep up? It’s already past 10,000 according to the Washington Post. I quote Rick Reilly, the author of the book I am reviewing this week “Sometimes the gap between the truth and Trumps (sic) is so great you couldn’t cross it with a Cessna.”
But I can’t ignore the orange elephant in the room forever. At some point, I have to tackle Trump. I chose Rick Reilly’s book, The Commander in Cheat: How Golf Explains Trump, because I like Rick Reilly and I like to play golf. I discovered Reilly, an award-winning writer for Sports Illustrated and ESPN, about twenty years ago when I was struggling to learn golf as it was the passion of my new boyfriend (Bill). I found the game stultifying in every way. There are rules for how you hold your shoulders, wrists, elbows, fingers, hips; how you dress; where you can walk; when it’s your turn to play.
Reilly’s 1997 novel Missing Links, about a bunch of golf die-hards at an unkempt public course, humanized the game for me. And it was hilarious! It seems to me that the author of such a book has to be a person of humanity, insight and humor. (All traits that Trump lacks.) However depressing the message, I would enjoy the read because of the way Reilly writes. I was not disappointed. I got a chuckle out of his description of a Trump golf course in Scotland. “Take the lighthouse. It used to just sit there by the 9th tee, looking a lot like Melania, gorgeous and lonely.”
Reilly’s point isn’t just that Trump plays golf and builds and promotes his golf courses the way he runs the country — all of which is true — but that we all could have seen this coming had we been paying attention to Trump on the golf course. In Reilly’s words, “Golf is like bicycle shorts. It reveals a lot about a man.”
In golf and in the presidency, “Trump operates as though the rules are for other people.” “[T]he way Trump cheats at golf, lies about his courses, and stiffs his golf contractors isn’t that far from how he cheats on his wives, lies about his misdeeds, and stiffs the world on agreements America has already made on everything from Iran to climate change.”
Trump’s bad behavior on the golf course is personal for Rick Reilly. He quotes his father, Jack: “Remember, Ricky, golf is a gentleman’s sport.” And according to Reilly, “Somebody who makes his caddies cheat for him to earn their tip is not a gentleman. Somebody who bullies and manipulates and yells that his courses are the best in the world when that world absolutely knows otherwise is not a gentleman.” He adds, ‘I’m glad my dad didn’t live to see a Commander in Cheat like Trump. It would’ve turned his stomach.”
“To find a man’s true character, play golf with him.” This line by PG Wodehouse begins the book. My husband Bill, who has played golf since he was a teen, shares this view. He definitely would not do business with you if you cheated at golf.
Golf is a game where one polices oneself. You can improve the lie of your golf ball with just a twist of your club without anyone seeing you. You can kick your ball out of the rough. (Trump does this so often that the caddies call him Pele.) You can drop a new ball down and pretend you’ve found the one that’s lost in the woods. In the 25 years I’ve played with Bill, he has never done any of these things. It’s the ethic of the game.
In a way, Bill and Rick Reilly are more appalled by Trump’s golfing antics than I. Not that I cheat, but I have often found many of the rules surrounding the game too stuffy, and dare I say, “gentlemenly.” Even these days, someone like me, an Asian woman, has a hard time finding my place at the golf club. I am a couple with Bill or I am relegated to the Thursday morning Ladies League.
I have often scoffed at the United States Golf Association’s Rules of Golf, a 500-page tome that covers every contingency. It’s sort of like the Mueller Report. You really should read it, but it’s too damned long. Nonetheless, I do have my own verities that I live by: Truth, Science, Justice, Fair Play. And they are not far from the Rules of Golf’s Code of Conduct: “All players are expected to play in the spirit of the game by Acting with integrity – for example, by following the Rules, applying all penalties, and being honest in all aspects of play.” (italics mine.) Disobeying the rules can get you disqualified.
Even for someone who operates on the basis that rules are for other people, the extent to which Trump would go to “win” is extreme. When playing the game, Trump’s golf cart is rigged to go twice as fast as the others. That allows him to get to his ball first so that he can move it to his advantage. In order to hype his golf courses (and be able to charge more for membership,) Trump lies about their ratings by golf magazines. To take things one step further, Trump cheats about his own accomplishments. At several of his golf courses, Trump hung photos of himself as the cover of a 2009 issue of TIME magazine. Except that TIME did not publish any cover with Trump on it in 2009! Cheating at sports is usually a spur of the moment decision. These actions required planning and forethought.
Rick Reilly interviewed many of the caddies at Trump’s courses — first names only. Just as Trump counts on his caddies to abet his cheating, at the risk of losing their jobs, he now has a whole Cabinet of such people. At Cabinet meetings, folks like DeVos, Carson, Zinke, Pruitt, Mnuchin, Tom Price, Kirstjen Nielsen, Wilbur Ross, Elaine Chao earn their caddy’s tip by stroking Trump’s ego. The Congressional Republicans, like Trump’s caddies, go along with the Trump agenda even when they know what the real rules are.
There is even a golf equivalent of the Trump supporters, the Trump base, the 38%. (I have some in my family too.) They remind me of the people Trump plays golf with: professional golfers like Tiger Woods, sports celebrities and announcers like Mike Tirico, politicians like Lindsey Graham. They all know that he cheats, that he’ll always win, but they don’t care. They enjoy the banter, the attention, the company. A fun day, just not golf.
What this book tells me is not just that Trump behaves badly in golf and in life. It tells me that these traits are his character and he isn’t going to change. As long as he’s in office, the cronyism, the nepotism, the corruption, the casual cruelty, the lying, the demonization of the press and other perceived enemies will continue. For the sake of ourselves, others and those not yet born, Trump needs to be defanged, declawed and his power neutered. Or as the Rules of Golf would so drily put it, he should be disqualified.
Tell me: Trump — a great golfer or the greatest? (apologies to the Colbert Report’s Stephen Colbert who always asked, “George W. Bush — a great president or the greatest?”)