- The Washington Times - Monday, February 3, 2003

We know, we know: The man has a country to lead. A war to fight. A flagging economy to prop up.
Not to mention an official White House T-ball league to run.
Still, is it too much to ask that President Bush take a few hours out of his crowded schedule to root for the Washington Redskins? Or at least catch a Mystics game?
After all, it's not as if Bush is a stranger to sports. To the contrary, the president is an avid runner. A former baseball owner. A Cheerleader-in-Chief who has exercised his executive privilege to watch Navy football in Philadelphia, Brewers baseball in Milwaukee and the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa.
Which, it should be noted, is slightly less convenient to the White House than Camden Yards.
Point is, a president who once served nobly as his prep school's "high commissioner of stickball" has never been to a game in the Washington area. And among our local luminaries, he's hardly alone: From the box seats at MCI Center to the owner's box at FedEx Field, our stands largely are devoid of the star power that cities like New York and Los Angeles take for granted.
"Who's the last ranking political celebrity to be seen at a Redskins game?" said Dave Kindred, a Sporting News columnist and longtime area writer. "That's a good question. I have no idea."
To put it another way: The Los Angeles Lakers draw Hollywood A-listers like Jack Nicholson and Salma Hayek. The New York Knicks practically have an extra spot on their bench for superfan-cum-director Spike Lee.
Even the Anaheim Angels a franchise in thrall to a pint-sized simian get bad boy actor Charlie Sheen and the shapely-if-now-unemployed cast of the Fox flop "Girls' Club."
Here in the world's most powerful city, by contrast, we're stuck with Tim Russert, Jessie Armstead and that guy from "The West Wing."
And that's on a good night.
"Hey, I've got Orioles and Wizards tickets," said political consultant and talk show host James Carville. "I go. I'm also a fight fan, which puts me in a real distinct minority."
Does it ever. Herein, the reasons why our best and brightest are athletic no-shows:
The price is wrong
Local fandom doesn't come cheap. Caps season tickets can cost more than $3,000. Redskins club seats run between $2,000 and $3,400 per season, provided you buy a six, eight or 10-year package.
Though megabuck tickets are well within the means of $15 million per picture stars like Nicholson and even lesser lights such as Knicks backer Matthew Modine they're not quite as feasible for the typical Washington pol.
"It's not that Washington isn't a sports town," said University of Miami president Donna Shalala, a former Secretary of Health and Human Services and a one-time Mystics ticketholder. "It's just that in government, you don't make enough to afford season tickets for a professional team. Unless you're really into it."
As for freebies, ethics rules leave most government employees out of luck. For example, members of Congress and staff cannot accept a gift valued at more than $50 and can only receive $100 worth of gifts from one source in a year in ticket terms, enough to take in a pair of Wizards games (club seats are valued at $49.50).
By contrast, television networks and film studios often promote their products by giving stars complementary tickets to high-profile sporting events.
"In cities like New York and L.A., you'll see celebrities [at games]," said Wizards spokesman Matt Williams. "But they're not season ticket holders. Somebody gave them the tickets. Well, you can't do that in this town. You have to be real careful. If someone does come, they [probably] bought the seats."
The late shift
Contrary to popular beyond-the-Beltway belief, Washington is a hard-working place. From lobbying to war planning to squeezing that last bit of pork into an eleventh-hour appropriations bill, our federal fat cats come in early, stay 'till the wee hours and often lose entire weekends in a fog of position papers and pizza boxes.
As such, is it any wonder that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, a Wizards season ticket holder, is only a sporadic presence at MCI Center?
(While traveling in the Middle East, Rumsfeld declined to be interviewed for this article. Probably because he was, well, busy).
"People work very late in Washington, and when they take time off, it's very difficult to get them to do anything," Shalala said. "They collapse on weekends."
Even when our movers and shakers decide to paint the town, ballgames are seldom a priority. After all, there are diplomatic functions to attend. Black-tie dinners to host. And $2,000-plus-per-plate fundraisers to stage.
"For most of the 1980s and a good part of the 1990s, we would go out to so many social events two or three dinners a week, several receptions that you almost looked forward to staying home," said Washington businessman and magazine publisher Bill Regardie.
Then there's the cultural factor. Unlike the show biz glitterati, Washington's famous faces aren't exactly looking to make the scene. Or be seen, for that matter.
"Compared to elites in other places, the Washington elite are a pretty dull bunch," Carville said. "At most, they'll sip on a watery white wine for an hour or two, then go home and go to sleep."
Shalala concurs.
"I think Washington has a higher quotient of nerds," she said with a laugh.
It's a hassle
By all accounts, Bill Clinton was an enthusiastic First Fan, a follower of everything from women's soccer to University of Arkansas basketball.
Still, there's a reason the former president made it to only a handful of local games even though he had, oh, eight years to take things in.
"You feel like you're screwing up people," Carville said. "If one afternoon you decide, 'Oh, I want to go to the Wizards game,' they block off the frickin' streets. And it's like, 'What is this [expletive] doing going to the game?'"
When Clinton attended the 1999 Women's World Cup final at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., his security detail sealed off the area in and around the stadium's elevators, forcing hundreds of fans to miss most of the game's first half.
Williams said that Clinton's occasional trips to MCI Center most notably on the arena's opening night in 1997 were less obtrusive.
"The way we work it, it's very friendly for a president," Williams said. "There's a separate entrance. They don't have to go through public areas to get to their seats. They just roll in, go up to [Wizards owner Abe] Pollin's area, then roll out."
Even so, it's no small undertaking for President Bush to take in a game, particularly in the wake of September 11. His ceremonial first pitch toss at Game 3 of the 2001 World Series required Yankee Stadium to open three hours early for security checks, and 1,200 police officers kept watch.
"I remember that [Vice President Dick] Cheney came to an Orioles game when he was Secretary of Defense, because I was there," said Russert, a Wizards season ticket holder. "But now, everybody is so security conscious."
Invisible men (and women)
Few local figures are as recognizable as Bush. Secretary of State Colin Powell? Probably. Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert? Maybe.
Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta? No chance. Unless you're a C-SPAN junkie.
"When you see a guy who may be a senator from some place, you may recognize him on TV in a suit and in front of a microphone," Williams said. "But if he's here [at MCI Center] in a sweater and khakis, you may not notice him. They're out of context."
Here in the U.S. Capitol, power trumps notoriety. As a result, you could be sitting next to an important local figure such as White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card or Office of Management and Budget Director Mitch Daniels and not even know it.
Sort of like sharing a high five with, say, Scott Baio at a Knicks game.
"Unless I pointed out to you the president of Lockheed Martin and first of all, I couldn't tell you his name nobody would know," Regardie said. "And even if I did, everybody would go, 'Oh, that's nice.' It's almost like bad form for local people to be celebrated."
They'd rather watch in Peoria
National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice loves football so much so that her stated goal is to serve as NFL commissioner. Last spring, she kept one eye on the pro draft while tracking the ongoing crisis in the Middle East.
But like President Bush, she's never been spotted at a Redskins game. In fact, Rice once told the New York Times that she's "not much of a Redskins fan."
The reason? She grew up in Cleveland, cheering for the Browns.
"Many people believe that they are transients in Washington, and not citizens of Washington," Russert said. "They first and foremost consider themselves Texans, Californians, New Yorkers. And most of them are petrified not to root for their home team."
Many of our big wigs' sporting loyalties lie elsewhere. Sen. Herb Kohl, Wisconsin Democrat, owns the Milwaukee Bucks. Rep. Tom Osborne, Nebraska Republican, used to coach Nebraska football.
White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer once wore a New York Yankees cap to a news conference. He later used the name of Yanks center fielder Bernie Williams when checking into a Caribbean resort for his honeymoon.
An O's fan, he ain't.
"Some are quite interesting, actually," Russert said. "[Former Congressman] Dick Armey was born in North Dakota and is a Vikings fan, even though he lives in Dallas. He doesn't go out of his way to make that too well known."
And while it never hurts to show up for a game in your home district, there's no political gain in rooting for a D.C. team. Especially in an era where running against the Beltway establishment is the norm.
"Politicians don't want to appear as if they're adopting Washington," Carville said.
Then there's the risk of public embarrassment. During a trip to MCI Center, Clinton was photographed cramming an overstuffed sandwich into his mouth an unflattering image to rival his short-shorts jogging pictures.
According to writer and longtime Washington observer Larry L. King, former Vice President Dan Quayle once approached him during a Redskins game, then inquired about the club's "farm team."
"It's kind of a dicey place for [politicians] to be," Carville said. "There's that great Nixon moment when he walked into the Arkansas-Texas game, and there was this huge outburst of cheering. So he put his hands up in the 'V' sign. Of course, it was when Arkansas was taking the field. "
The gang's all gone
Time was, the RFK Stadium owner's box was the place to be. Limelight-loving former Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke collected area movers and shakers the way others collect stamps: Doug Wilder, Eugene McCarthy, George McGovern and Lesley Stahl were all regulars, while everyone from Watergate judge John Sirica to former President Jimmy Carter dropped in on occasion.
"It probably did more good for Carter to be in that box than to be in the White House," Kindred said. "Everyone was always anxious to see who was there."
In the here and now, however, the box has a different vibe. Team observers say Redskins owner Dan Snyder is more interested in local businessmen and politicians than national figures, making visits from the likes of Sen. Orrin Hatch, Utah Republican, and former NSA Sandy Berger (both spotted at a Monday night game a few years back) less frequent.
"It just never was quite the same for me after Cooke died and the team moved," said King, a box regular in the Cooke era. "I've been to a few games since, but not for a couple of years. It changed a [heck] of a lot."
Likewise, the venerable Pollin isn't looking to boost his Q-rating with a see-and-be-seen box.
"On occasion, you will see political folks in there and some VIPs," Williams said. "But that kind of thing is not what Mr. Pollin is in it for. Usually, he's got a lot of family in there. And when the game starts, he's in his seat. He really wants to watch the game."
The teams stink
And maybe that's the real issue: Our teams just aren't worth watching. Over the last decade, the Redskins have been more off than on. The Caps usually are just good enough to lose in the playoffs. And even with Michael Jordan, the Wizards aren't about to dethrone the Lakers.
If Washington's elites would rather catch "Joe Millionaire" than Wizards-Knicks, said former Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann, well, who can blame them?
"Do politicians want to go and be seen someplace where people are losing?" Theismann said. "No. If the Redskins start winning, you will see politicians in the boxes. If the Redskins aren't winning, you will hear politicians hope that they start winning."
In the meantime, our stands figure to have as much juice as an orange rind. It's a shame, really especially in a place where the leaders are supposed to be of the people, not apart from them.
"It's been said by more than one person that if you want to understand America, go to a high school football game," Russert said. "So if you want to understand Washington, go to a Wizards game. Go to a 'Skins game. Go to an Orioles game.
"I think if they went down into the stands, had popcorn, sweated a little bit and yelled until they got hoarse, it would be good for everybody."

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide