When George Bush Feels the Urge to Play (Frequently!), He Turns to a Sporting Circle of First and Fast Pals

updated 07/16/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/16/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

If you get to be President, you wind up with a statusy address, a terrific phone system and...a bunch of First Friends. From Grant to Harding to Hoover, Presidents have solved the problem of splendid isolation by fishing, golfing, drinking or just plain unwinding with their buddies. In recent years, JFK had Lem Billings and Ben Bradlee, Richard Nixon had Bebe Rebozo, and Ronald Reagan had Walter Annenberg.

But no President, at least in modern times, has had a larger or more diverse group of pals than George Herbert Walker Bush. They represent old money from Connecticut, Bush's original home, new money from Texas, and perks-enhanced money from a broad sampling of the Washington political spectrum. What bonds a number of these buddies is a keen interest in the hunt—whether the quarry is a bonefish, a pheasant or a hapless tennis player who has just tossed up a short lob—and the wherewithal to close up shop when the White House calls.

They are, in short, consummate sportsmen with the skills to parry one of the best. "If he's behind, whether it's in skeet shooting or horseshoes or anything else, he'll recap the score," says former Congressman Thomas Ludlow Ashley, a college pal at Yale—where young George captained the baseball team and played first base—and a regular member of the George Bush sports circuit. "By repeating the score aloud, what he's really saying is: it's surge time, time to really focus. He wins a lot in the closing moments." Adds David Bates, former Cabinet secretary under Bush: "If you're playing against him and have the advantage, better take it."

Such rueful advice flows readily from the men who have taken on the President at fishing, hunting, horseshoes, golf, tennis and jogging or just slashing through the waters off the First Family's estate in Kennebunkport, Me., in George's Cigarette boat. "I do not know of any President beyond Teddy Roosevelt who was as active," says conservative columnist Vic Gold, a Bush running partner, "It's woven into his makeup. If he didn't do it, he'd be itchy and irritable." Adds Willard "Spike" Heminway, who began playing tennis with the future President 25 years ago while vacationing in Maine: "He gives a hundred percent and he makes you give a hundred percent, so there's this great competition out there."

Has Bush's ascension to the White House altered the dynamics of a friendly athletic outing? No, say his friends. "Not one thing has changed when you're on the field of battle with him," says Heminway. "You get out there and you want to beat him." And what would bonefishing chum Sen. Alan Simpson do if he began pulling in more fish than Bush? "Just keep fishing and rub it in," says Simpson.

—Charles E. Cohen, Linda Kramer and Marilyn Balamaci in Washington, D. C.

From Our Partners