Commander in Cheat: How Golf Explains Trump
By Rick Reilly
Hachette Books, 2019
Veteran sports writer and author of the bestselling Who’s Your Caddy? Rick Reilly opens his new book, inevitably a Trump book, Commander in Cheat, with one of countless anecdotes along the same lines:
More than one source described another time when Trump happened to walk into the Bedminster clubhouse just as a worker was putting up the name of the newly crowned senior club championship winner on a wooden plaque. Trump had been out of town and hadn’t played in the tournament, but when he saw the player’s name, he stopped the employee. “Hey, I beat that guy all the time. Put my name up there instead.” The worker was flummoxed.
“Yeah, yeah. I beat that guy constantly. I would’ve beaten him. Put my name up.”
If that anecdote’s perfect storm of narcissism, pettiness, and lying gets your blood boiling, reading Commander in Chief will have you fuming from start to finish. Reilly has been a golf savant and one of the most entertaining sports writers for years; he’s golfed with many presidents and celebrities (George H. W. Bush “looked like a man trying to swat a horsefly,” readers will learn, as well as, a little wistfully, that President Obama’s game involved “no cheating, no mulligans, no do-overs”), see every kind of turf behavior, and kept his counsel throughout it all. He’s also uniformly funny when writing about presidents who golfed before his time:
Woodrow Wilson was such a worrier that his doctor ordered him to play golf to relieve his indigestion, even though Wilson couldn’t play dead in a cowboy movie. He rarely broke 110. He’d putt hunched over 90 degrees, like a man talking to a pet mouse, with a putter that couldn’t have been taller than a toilet plunger.
Naturally, for a writer like Reilly, golf is the key to Donald Trump. Many, many writers have opined over the decades about how allegedly revealing a golf course is for a man’s true character. Those writers have all been golfers, and golfers are invariably the source of this man’s-true-character codswallop, but Reilly has a shrewd eye and, the reader quickly senses, a remarkably clear memory. And he’s certain this silly little sport is crucial to his subject: “Trump’s love affair with golf has far outlasted any romance he’s had with any woman or career or party affiliation.”
In this love affair as in all his others, Trump cheats incessantly, lies about it, and then believes his own lies. In scenario after scenario related by Reilly, Trump’s cheating and lying is compulsive, ridiculously operatic, and of course completely undocumented. Reilly has shared the links with many presidents, and the difference is clear to him: “It’s not so much the promises Trump breaks or the lies he tells, it’s the sheer volume of them.”
Trump is not the first US President to play golf - almost all of them have, whether they actually enjoyed it or not. He’s also not the first US President to cheat at golf - again, many of them have. He’s not even the first thin-skinned, morbidly obese US President to play golf - he’s got William Howard Taft for company (although Photoshopping didn’t exist in Taft’s day). Even so, the portrait in Commander in Cheat is, in fact, singular. Golf or no golf, no other US President has ever been a delusional psychopath. Golf or no golf, that’s what “explains” Trump - which makes all the book’s stories about people having fun while he lies to them fairly chilling.
—Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, The Spectator, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.