[9 December 2008]
After an Energizer-bunny US presidential campaign and all this talk about tax policy and foreign policy, economic meltdowns and debate showdowns, and clichéd slogans such as “Change we can believe in” and “Country first”, we need to get serious about our presidents: What kind of fishermen were they? And how did their fishing habits influence their presidencies? These are important questions every American must have answered.
Neither Obama nor McCain are serious anglers. However, they’re in a distinct minority because when fishing and presidents (and their VPs – real or wanna be) are mentioned in the same sentence, a long history connecting the two institutions quickly unfolds.
Think of these recent images: Presidents Bush I and II angling somewhere along the Maine coast, proudly holding a chubby striped bass; or Dick Cheney, Wyoming’s native son, fly-fishing a beautiful Western river; or Sarah Palin, boasting a sleekly impressive Alaskan salmon. The list is a long one.
However, as Bill Mares explains in his provocative 1999 book, Fishing with the Presidents: An Anecdotal History, a robust love of fishing has not been restricted to Republicans. Grover Cleveland, Franklin Roosevelt, and Jimmy Carter were three of the White House’s most famous anglers.
For fishermen like myself, lumping presidents and fishing together during the fall is difficult to avoid, and that’s not because of this recent election. As the leaves turn, the weather cools, and trout fishing opportunities throughout Maryland rise from their summer slumber, I travel to Big Hunting Creek, a popular catch-and-release creek in north-central Maryland designated specifically for fly-fishing enthusiasts.
Nestled in the Catoctin Mountains and winding through the shadows of Camp David, the creek is full of trout. As I pull streamers and nymphs in unsuspecting pools, I wonder how the dry flies of former presidents floated along its banks. This water, arguably, is the nation’s most “presidential” trout stream.
Mares, a former Harvard history undergraduate and Vermont state representative, was the ideal wordsmith to pen such a book. In anecdotal fashion, he tells this story about his final days as a politician: During a less-than-exciting afternoon at the statehouse, he walked a few hundred yards to the Winooski River, which runs through Montpelier, the state capital, to trout fish. He caught several, and the day, at least he thought, punctuated an end to his political career.
However, as he transitioned into a high school teaching career, his passion for fishing, history, and politics endured. After a trip to The American Museum of Fly Fishing in Manchester, Vermont, those interests coalesced, and his passion for presidential fishing was ignited after rummaging through angling books written by Cleveland and Herbert Hoover. “My fascination with presidential fishing itself became a fishing expedition,” he says in the Introduction, recalling how his research led him to many strange places and produced volumes of unusual artifacts.
Mares’ style resonates with the inviting contradictions that underline angling: although fishing is an entertaining form of recreation, many anglers, including presidents, consider the sport a profoundly serious endeavor. Mares combines serious meditations about presidential fishing with humorous, ironic anecdotes. Well-researched primary sources support his prose, including various presidential letters and essays, while idiosyncratic tangents into the presidential angler’s more peculiar habits—- such as the role of swearing in presidential fishing—- adorn that prose.
Throughout, Mares raises provocative questions about the relationship between presidential politics and fishing. For example, early in the book, Mares ponders this: How many nation-altering decisions were made easier or clearer because of a president’s rest and relaxation while fishing? Furthermore, he points out, as the mass media grew in stature and size, presidents could campaign more aggressively and use fishing to cultivate their public image. How did fishing shape that image? Depending on the president and his historical context, fishing connected presidents with the Common Man and helped them appear as environmentally friendly.
However, presidents photographed fishing could also produce dangerous political results, especially, for example, when he was skunked or photographed in compromising situations (such as untangling a knot, falling in the water, or frowning in disgust). Perhaps Mares’ most powerful point is captured by this question: How could any president ignore one of the nation’s largest voting blocs – anglers – since as of 1990 more than 25 million Americans owned a fishing license?
The many visual aids that complement Mares’ prose reflect one of Fishing with the Presidents greatest contributions. Dozens of photographs of presidents and their catch illuminate the role fishing played in history. Whether to relax and socialize with friends and family and forget the political drama of the day, or to broker important policy or diplomatic deals or bond with political allies, Mares makes a compelling argument, aided by these photographs, that angling has for more than two centuries played a pivotal role in the nation’s history.
These photographs also reveal volumes about the men themselves and their presidential strengths and weaknesses. Here are a few of my favorites: a lonesome Calvin Coolidge fishing a tiny trout stream in Vermont wearing a suit, tie, and popular boater hat; a shirtless Harry Truman proudly boasting a fat six-pound grouper; Franklin Roosevelt and friends with an enormous grouper (that appears capable of swallowing each man whole); and a befuddled Richard Nixon learning about fly-fishing from Dwight Eisenhower.
Although newspaper cartoons are sprinkled throughout, Mares dedicates an entire chapter to this revealing medium. The many cartoons not only show how important a punching bag presidential fishing was for the nation’s satirists and lampoonists, but Mares’ vast collection also serves as a micro-history of the medium: the diverse cartooning styles and their evolution through the decades are also on display.
Each cartoon in varying degrees sends this message: Americans can learn much about their president by reading him as a fisherman. One cartoon depicts Franklin Roosevelt trying desperately to land a fish: however, the fish, with “Third Term” written across its body, has snagged the president’s line in a large log with “Time-Honored Tradition” scribbled across it. Another depicts Hoover on a tiny boat in the open ocean hauling in a massive marlin, stating, “And not a senator here to tell me how it ought to be done. Darn it!”
Other notable commentaries leap throughout Mares’ pages: He suggests that George Washington’s scrupulous attention to detail as a commercial fisherman helped him as our Chief Executive; that Hoover once served as President of the Izaak Walton League and rarely went fishing without a three-piece suit and tie; and that Jimmy Carter, whose An Outdoor Journal: Adventures and Reflections is a classic in presidential fishing, once persuaded James Baker, Ronald Reagan’s Treasury Secretary, to change a US customs policy that was “manifestly cumbersome and destructive” to imported flies. These men clearly take their fishing seriously. Other delights are the many presidential quotes about fishing including when Hoover stated, “all men are equal before fish!”; when Coolidge said, “Guess I’m a real fisherman now. I cussed!”; and when Eisenhower once proclaimed, “I don’t use worms. I want fishing to be a challenge.”
Not surprisingly, Mares notes, many presidents gravitated toward fishing to find a peaceful escape from their chaotic lives. Howell Raines, an editorial page editor for The New York Times, wrote this in 1993 about Hoover’s book: “The best part…is a few paragraphs in which he elaborated on his well-known remark, ‘Presidents have only two moments of personal seclusion. One is prayer; the other is fishing—and they cannot pray all the time!’”. Mares dedicates an entire chapter to this notion titled “Fishing and Escape”.
So, now that the election is over, it’s time to go fishing. Historically speaking, I’ll be in notable company.