Times Column 25/09/04
This rare close-up of George W. Bush in sporting action was recently discovered and published by the Los Angeles Times. The caption is from the Yale University yearbook of 1969, and the key question is the same for American voters as for rugby adepts. Can playing rugby, and the way rugby is played, provide any clue as to the character of the man?
Traditionally, rugby encourages a rainbow of virtues including stoicism, co-operation, dedication, and of course courage. There is also responsibility, decision-making and patience – not a bad list of boxes to tick for an aspiring political leader.
Bill Clinton, another rugby-playing President (spooky, you might think, if you weren’t already beginning to suspect the often unacknowledged role of rugby in presidential politics) certainly valued the educational qualities of the game. In his recent autobiography, My Life, he remembers a rugby match for his Oxford college in which he was concussed, but refused to leave the field: “As long as you don’t quit, you’ve always got a chance.”
Unfortunately, he learns this lesson from all his other experiences, as well, despite the fact that it isn’t true. Ask the Scottish rugby team.
The author of the LA Times article which first accompanied the Bush photograph, a Yale lecturer in political science, thought it illustrated Bush’s rough diamond charm. Boys will be boys. Punches get thrown and it’s a bit of a lark, and then after the match, at least until discovering religion, we can all have a beer. (In 2001, the Yale rugby club was sanctioned by the New England RFU for keeping a beer keg on the field. During play.).
However, this being an election year, the ball bounces both ways. Democrat commentators hijacked the photo as evidence that Bush was a cheating thug. ‘Even in rugby’, one solemn website opined, ‘grasping an opponent by the back of the head and punching him in the face’ isn’t strictly allowed. Except in Gloucester, though in the States they couldn’t be expected to know this.
Disappointingly, this potential Rugbygate lost steam because of the alien nature of rugby to Americans – and I feel it’s our cousinly responsibility to explain the true significance of the image. Let’s look at it more closely, from a rugby point of view.
Bush appears to be travelling backwards. Instead of putting his weight into a punch, it seems more likely that he’s falling off a tackle, his fist clenched from an attempt to grab his opponent’s collar. Still photos can freeze all-action rugby players in an endless variety of bizarre poses, a fact exploited on the covers of ‘humorous’ rugby books showing players clutching each other’s goolies. When they don’t. In case you were wondering.
Back in the Bush photo, notice that his opponent has a firm grasp on the ball. This is not a contest the future President is winning. So, for the Democrats, it seems that George is living up to his boast that he ‘didn’t learn a damn thing’ at Yale. He certainly didn’t learn how to tackle.
In the interests of parity, however, and as ammunition for Republicans, it’s known that George W. Bush played as a winger. The tackle seems to be taking place in the left corner with Bush’s team defending. This means he’s run the long distance from his natural position on the right to provide the last line of defence for his team. Also, he’s not even wearing a gum-shield, while his opponent has a scrumcap. In the late sixties, this means he’s a forward, and therefore probably bigger and stronger than the feisty Bush, who is officially ‘just under’ six feet tall (as are many diminutive wingers and all men under six feet).
The truth is that in rugby the nature of a player can never be captured in a single image. To make any character judgement of value, we need to see the whole game, an entire season, off the pitch as well as on.
More than thirty-five years after this match at Yale, it’s also true that a President of the United States will influence ever more disparate spheres of human experience. Rugby isn’t excluded. Last Monday, in Tokyo, 15,000 people watched Waseda University beat Oxford, in a match to commemorate the death of the Japanese diplomat Katsuhiko Oku. Ambassador Oku played rugby for both universities, and in 1983 was the first Japanese player to represent the Blues XV at Oxford. He was killed last year in Iraq.