On a Wednesday afternoon earlier this month, top Republicans quietly disappeared from Capitol Hill. House votes were suspended for several hours. What was afoot? An urgent briefing on Iraq, the troubled economy, the coming avian flu pandemic?
Not exactly. The event that lured away the Republican throng, which included House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, was the Booz Allen Hamilton pro-am golf tournament held in suburban Maryland. Alas, politics waits for no tournament, and back on the Hill there was trouble. Short-handed Republicans on the House Committee on International Relations nearly lost a major vote on U.N. reform when two of their own defected to vote with the Democrats. According to Roll Call, Indiana Republican Dan Burton had ignored a specific warning not to miss the vote, which Republicans barely squeezed out, 24-23. A "freshly-sunburned Burton" returned to the Hill the next day to read that he might have sabotaged his chance to assume the committee's chairmanship next year.
For many Republicans, it seems, golf is like sex—it leads to reckless risk-taking. Sure, the game has its Democratic draw: Bill Clinton, for one, was a famous addict. But in today's Washington, golf is an intensely Republican sport. George W. Bush, Tom DeLay, Bill Frist, and Rick Santorum are all fanatics. John Kerry, Hillary Clinton, Harry Reid, and Nancy Pelosi are decidedly not. Which stands to reason: The corporate, country-club veneer of golf fits more easily with modern Republican culture. Plus, golf tends to thrive in red-state regions, like the Sun Belt, where open land is plentiful and to which the GOP's power base has recently shifted.
At the same time, the Republican obsession with golf reveals the party's phony posturing as the champion of average Americans. All the hand-wringing among Democrats about why liberals don't go to NASCAR races or duck hunts misses the fact that Tom DeLay and Bill Frist don't go to monster-truck night with the guys from Deliverance either. They hit the links at exclusive country clubs with rich donors and corporate lobbyists. That's who they are. Golf is an expression of the party's elite upper-class id.
And that id is what's corrupting the party. Consider the Abramoff scandals. Time and again, golf was the bait that Jack Abramoff—the conservative superlobbyist now under federal investigation—used to lure Republican politicians into his realm. When Abramoff shuttled dozens of congressmen and their staffs to the Northern Mariana Islands in the 1990s, as part of his campaign to keep local sweatshops free from regulation, the group teed up at Saipan's LaoLao Bay Golf Resort. "It seemed to be so much about golf," one disillusioned conservative who traveled to Saipan recently told my New Republic colleague Franklin Foer. Abramoff even billed the island government for minutes spent booking tee times.
Several other dubious Abramoff exploits have featured golf, including the two trips that now have Majority Leader DeLay in deep trouble. One of them, a 1997 visit to Moscow allegedly underwritten by shady Russian oil interests, featured a stay at the luxurious 120-hectare Moscow Country Club. (Who knew they even had golf in Russia?) The other was a trip to Britain highlighted by golf at Scotland's legendary St. Andrews links, where Abramoff reportedly had a membership. (According to the Wall Street Journal, Abramoff enlisted an Arizona-based golf-tour company to provide the ultimate golfing experience to DeLay, who squeezed in rounds at three "British-Open quality courses" over his four-day trip.)
Meanwhile, publicly released e-mails suggest that Ohio Republican Rep. Bob Ney hit up Abramoff for a trip to St. Andrews as a reward for helping one of his Indian casino clients. The examples go on and on. When he wasn't shuttling Republicans to the fairways, for instance, Abramoff was handing out golf equipment. Time has reported that at least two former top DeLay staffers accepted clubs from him as gifts in potential violation of House ethics rules. Abramoff even bought movement conservatives with a few holes. New billing records released this week by a Senate committee show that the lobbyist charged one of his Indian tribal clients hundreds of dollars for golf with "Think Tank Activists."
As Abramoff's exploits show, golf is an ideal fulcrum for the GOP's cozy relationship with its moneyed backers. If you're a donor or lobbyist, a day of golf is an ideal chance for a long, leisurely stroll in the company of a politician. For a politician, it's a fine opportunity to hit up supplicants for campaign cash or other favors.
Republicans have engineered these mutual interests into a campaign cash cow that lets them have more fun than Rodney Dangerfield at the Bushwood Country Club. This National Republican Congressional Committee event list includes a dozen golf-oriented House Republican fund-raisers planned for the coming months. Don't miss your chance to sponsor a golf hole at Republican Congressman Eric Cantor's "Every Republican Is Crucial's (ERIC PAC) Annual Golf Tournament," where a mere $5,000 will buy you "two golf slots and company signage at golf hole." GOP Rep. John Boehner of Ohio sponsors his own annual golf tour, with fund-raising stops in multiple states.
It's safe to assume that Republican politicians and lobbyists don't spend all their time on the links trading putting tips. "Even conversation on the course is strategic," explains this profile in Lodging Magazine of Republican hotel-industry lobbyist Jack Connors. "Connors deliberately doesn't bring up business when paired with a legislator at a fundraiser: Invariably, however, somewhere on the back nine the legislator will ask, 'Jack, what's on your mind these days?' " Republican Rep. Joel Hefley recently recounted for the Hill "a golf outing where a lawmaker, whom he would not name, kept telling a lobbyist how much he admired his golf bag. Sure enough, the lawmaker soon had a new golf bag."
Some of the best evidence about the sport's corrupting function comes from a golf retreat/fund-raiser held three years ago in West Virginia for two of DeLay's political action committees. Energy-company executives paid as much as $25,000 to attend the retreat, which was held on the eve of House and Senate negotiations over a bill in which they had a huge stake. One of the executives later described tooling about in a golf cart with a top DeLay aide and pitching his case about the bill directly to the majority leader. For this, even the somnolent House ethics committee felt obliged to admonish DeLay.
Not long after Sept. 11, members of Congress were told of intelligence about a three-man al-Qaida sniper team that was training to assassinate U.S. politicians on a golf course. But even this chilling warning doesn't seem to have diminished Republican zeal for a day on the rolling greens. Golf is too central to the Washington GOP lifestyle to be abandoned easily. And some Republicans swear that it offers nothing less than a window into the soul. "You can tell a lot about a person's character by the way they play golf. If they cheat at golf, they'll cheat at anything," Tom DeLay once said. Hear that, GOP faithful? Take it from your leader: Next time you sell your soul to a lobbyist for an overseas golf trip, no mulligans!