April 26, 2012

Presidential Bowling

Believe it or not, for the past 65 years the President of the United States has had access to his own personal bowling alley.
White House bowling alley, 1948.
In 1947, President Harry Truman was presented with a two lane bowling alley in the basement of the White House for his 63rd birthday. Truman hadn't bowled since he was 19 years old, but had mentioned to a group of friends that he was considering taking up the game. While unenthusiastic about the sport, Truman did allow a White House league to form for staffers, many of whom were understandably distressed when Eisenhower was elected and there was a possibility that Truman would take his gift with him. In 1955 the alley was moved from beneath the West Wing to the basement of the Old Executive Office Building to make space for a mimeograph room. This space would eventually be the home of the Situation Room installed by President John F. Kennedy. Just because Eisenhower had the White House lanes moved that does not mean that he was not a fan of bowling, as he had a two lane alley installed at Camp David where he hosted Nikita Kruschev in 1959 (Kruschev was more interested in the pin-setter than actually bowling). Recently, George W. Bush had the Camp David lanes refurbished during his term in office.

Eisenhower children at Camp David, 1960.
In 1969, President Richard Nixon had a one lane alley built in a workspace beneath the driveway leading to the North Portico of the White House. Nixon and his wife were both avid bowlers, but they felt that they should not have to cross the street every time they wished to throw a game on Truman's lanes in the Old Executive Office Building. The new alley was paid for by a friend and it has been said that Nixon was such an avid bowler he paid the $400 annual lease fee for the automatic pin-setting machines out of his own pocket. Nixon also followed professional bowling to the point where they would send a special recording of the final rounds to the White House in case the President was not able to watch on television.

Nixon at the Old Executive Office Building, 1970.

Since Nixon, bowling has played a small part in presidential history. Jimmy Carter revised security measures in the White House after meeting his two children in the alley and finding the full Secret Service detail there for all three people even though none of them had even left the building, a clear waste of resources. During his 2008 campaign, Barack Obama infamously bowled a 37 at a stop in Altoona, PA (my western Pennsylvania tie-in for this post). After winning the election, Obama quipped that he was going to replace the historic bowling lane with a basketball court, causing an uproar from the bowling community. A coalition of bowling organizations approached President Obama with a proposal that they update the lane for the 21st century to include an HD scoring system, top of the line bowling balls and, of course, electronic bumpers. One good thing about his terrible score on the campaign trail is that anytime Obama goes bowling it makes the headlines.

Nixon's White House lane, 1985.

So how good were the presidential bowlers? Nixon averaged about 165-170 in 1970 and in 1978, Carter was also estimated by a friend to average about 165. First Lady Lady Bird Johnson recollected throwing a 188 game on Truman's lanes in the Old Executive Office Building and claimed that her husband President Lyndon B. Johnson wasn't such a bad bowler himself even though the first time he ever bowled was at the Camp David lanes. One of President George W. Bush's staffers, Joshua Bolten, threw the administration's high game of 207 on the Camp David lanes. After his Altoona 37 game, Obama must have practiced because his press secretary stated that he threw a 144 at Camp David in 2009.

Proposed White House alley update.

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