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Bush runs White House with sports metaphors

Running the country is no game. It just sounds like one sometimes. In the Bush White House, sports are a metaphor for life. Better keep up if you want to play.
Bushs Language
When President Bush, right, defended then-outgoing British Prime Minister Tony Blair on May 17, he said of his political friend, "He's going to sprint to the wire." Charles Dharapak / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Running the country is no game. It just sounds like one sometimes. In the Bush White House, sports are a metaphor for life. Better keep up if you want to play.

Consider how President Bush describes his time left in office.

"I'm going to sprint to the finish," he likes to say.

Not content to run alone, he used the phrase to defend Tony Blair in Blair's dwindling days as Britain's prime minister.

"He's going to sprint to the wire," Bush declared of his pal.

The sports imagery changes when slow is the preferred way to go for the White House. Take the way the administration defends its global warming strategy against criticism it has lacked urgency.

"This is a marathon," explained Jim Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. "It's not a sprint."

Sports metaphors have become a pervasive way for Bush and his team to describe almost anything. Expressing ideas in terms of athletics is so routine in the highest levels of government — just as it is in more typical workplaces — that even people who do not follow sports are used to it.

Fairness means leveling the playing field; focus is keeping your eye on the ball. Send in the heavy hitters if you want results. If sacrifice is called for, then take one for the team.

"It's just the way we speak. Our language is permeated with these terms," said Harold Ray, a sports historian who identified 1,700 sports metaphors in a book he co-wrote about the topic. "We just assume that everyone understands them."

Football metaphors meet language barrier
When Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was forced to answer critics of a plan to shut down North Korea's nuclear program, she needed a way to urge patience. So, naturally, the administration's top diplomat used the language of a football game.

"This is still the first quarter," she said. "There is still a lot of time to go on the clock."

The lingo does not always translate, however.

The same day in February that Rice spoke in Washington, U.S. nuclear negotiator Christopher Hill was in Beijing and described what private discussions with North Korean officials had been like.

"For those people who are not Americans, you won't understand this metaphor," he cautioned reporters. "But it's always like 3 yards, 3 yards, 3 yards. And then it's always 4th and 1, and you make a first down and do 3 more yards."

US President George W. Bush (C) laughs w
Washington, UNITED STATES: US President George W. Bush (C) laughs with Indianapolis Colts Coach Tony Dungy (R) as Colts Quarterback Peyton Manning gives him a team jersey after making remarks on the 2006-2007 NFL Champions 23 April 2007 at the White House in Washington, DC. The Colts won Super Bowl XLI last January beating the Chicago Bears 29-17. AFP PHOTO/Jim WATSON (Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)Jim Watson / AFP

Got it?

By his own admission, Vice President Dick Cheney fumbled his reference to football when he tried to describe progress in Afghanistan.

"It's sometimes 3 yards and a cloud of dust. There's no home run — touchdown, home run is a flawed analogy — no touchdown pass to be thrown here. But it can be done," Cheney said.

It is now understood that when a topic becomes popular to kick around, it is a political football. The White House has used that term to describe an eclectic range of matters, from medicare to taxes to former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

Switch in power, not sports talk
In October, just before the congressional elections, Bush said Democrats were a tad arrogant in assessing their chances of winning control.

"They're dancing in the end zone," he said. "They just haven't scored the touchdown."

Then the Democrats won.

So the power dynamic changed, but not the sports talk.

How does the White House choose to challenge leaders in Congress? "Step up to the plate," Bush spokesman Tony Snow said.

What is the Democrats' motivation for investigating the firing of eight fired U.S. attorneys? "An opportunity to score political points," Bush claimed.

Will Bush now start vetoing more bills? "The ball really lies in the court of those in Congress," Snow said.

At heart, Bush is a baseball guy, a former co-owner of the Texas Rangers. He knows the rule when the ball and the runner reach first base at the same time: The tie goes to the runner.

Turns out, that is exactly how Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts explained a ruling that loosened campaign finance regulations.

"Where the First Amendment is implicated," Roberts wrote, "the tie goes to the speaker, not the censor."

Even the spy world can be explained by sports metaphors; CIA Director Michael Hayden uses them all the time.

Pressed to justify why so many senior intelligence jobs are filled by people with military backgrounds, Hayden used a phrase better associated with a general manager of a football team: "They were the best athletes available in the draft."

As for Bush, it is no surprise that sports metaphors come easily, said Ray, a retired professor from Western Michigan University.

"With his baseball background, and with the way presidents have honored sports champions, it's a natural," Ray said.

The underdog of politics
Indeed, if Bush is ever free to put life in the context of sports, it is when teams come by the White House. He loves relating an underdog story to his political career.

"They said you didn't have a chance," he told the Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers in 2006. "I kind of know the feeling."

One bit of caution, however, applies to explaining sensitive matters in sports terms — don't shoot and miss.

Just ask former CIA Director George Tenet.

In the run-up to the war in Iraq, Tenet chose a common basketball phrase to describe the strength of the case against Saddam Hussein. Tenet now says he was talking broadly about the case that could be made against the dictator — not a faulty assurance that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction.

Either way, his wording has come to haunt him.

It was not, as he infamously put it, a "slam dunk."