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Maureen Dowd
October 15, 1990
In Washington, the White House is the place to play
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October 15, 1990

The Ultimate Tennis Club

In Washington, the White House is the place to play

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Marlin Fitzwater, President Bush's roundish, baldish press secretary and Washington's favorite hapless bachelor, used to invite women he was dating to play tennis on the White House court. "I stopped doing that," says Fitzwater, "because I figured out that they liked the court more than they liked me."

The nation's most exclusive racket club, 7,200 square feet of Laykold, a hard court with a slight give that helps the President's creaky knees, definitely has allure. The court sits in a garden on the South Lawn of the White House and is insulated from nearby streets by a lush screen of magnolia trees and holly bushes, which were installed by Jacqueline Kennedy when she was First Lady. Redolent of magnolias during the summer, adorned with wrought-iron, umbrella-shaded tables, white azaleas and red geraniums, with a phone for keeping abreast of crises and a refrigerator stocked with sodas—including the President's favorite, Diet Slice—the court offers an elite group of 58 senior White House staffers and cabinet members a respite from tedious meetings on lumber tariffs, defense spending and revenue-enhancing devices—i.e., taxes.

It is also an excellent place to catch the President's ear, if you're part of his Tennis Cabinet, which comprises half a dozen or so cronies, including Michael Boskin, the President's economic adviser; Roger Porter, the domestic policy adviser; Gregg Petersmeyer, the head of the Points of Light program; David Bates, the former White House liaison to the Cabinet, who is now a Washington lawyer; and the President's youngest son, Marvin, the most talented regular on the White House court. Marvin, an investment adviser who lives in Alexandria, Va., is clearly smitten with the court. "Someone throws up a lob, and you look up and all of a sudden the Washington Monument is splitting your vision," he says. "I still get goose bumps."

"You don't have to worry about other people's balls rolling onto your court," says Bates. "However, if your balls fly over the fence, it's a bit tough to get them, because most of the gates arc kept locked for security reasons."

George Bush, who plays an average of twice a week during the warm months, has been using the court more than any president since Gerald Ford, who played more than any president since Teddy Roosevelt. Several officials in the Administration trace their initial encounters with Bush to tennis on other courts, and he considers the game a good litmus test for judging character. "Subconsciously at least, the President judges people by their competitive attitude on the court," says Fitzwater. "He likes people who are competitive as well as fun."

It was Bush's idol, Teddy Roosevelt, who got the ball bouncing at the White House, back in 1902, when he ordered a lawn sheared outside the executive offices to make way for a rolled-dirt tennis court. When some pundits said they considered the expenditure frivolous, Roosevelt argued that the $400 price tag was far less than what presidents Grant, Harrison and Cleveland each had spent on greenhouses at the White House. "It surely cannot be meant that there is an objection to the President and his children playing tennis," wrote Roosevelt at the time, "and of course it is impossible for them to play tennis except in the White House grounds."

While the court was billed as amusement for the president's debutante daughter, Alice, and was originally referred to in the press as " Miss Roosevelt's new tennis court" and "the royal court," Roosevelt soon began monopolizing it. He and his mustachioed Tennis Cabinet of ambassadors, aides and cabinet members enjoyed not only the sport but also pitchers of mint juleps between sets.

Like Bush, Roosevelt was an aggressive player who admired others who played the same way. It is said that France's ambassador, Jean Jules Jusserand, so wowed Roosevelt with his vigorous game that TR completely changed his attitude toward the French government.

When the 300-pound William Howard Taft came along with his Golf Cabinet, he had Roosevelt's beloved court plowed under to build the Oval Office. "Where the exultant cries of 'fifteen-love' were cracked by the teeth of the mighty hunter and minor notes of 'love-fifteen' came purringly from his respectful antagonists of the Tennis Cabinet, there will hereafter be heard only the quiet tones of a constitutional President dictating state papers," mourned a New York Times article, illustrated with a cartoon of an angry tennis racket stomping off the White House grounds.

But like Fitzwater, Helen Taft, the president's wife, understood the importance of the White House court as a social tool. Wanting a place at which her three teenagers could entertain friends, she had another court built farther down the lawn on the southwest side of the South Grounds, on the site of the present court.

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