Transcript

Episode 27: The Story of the Billigans, with Don Van Natta Jr.

Transcripts are created using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Paul Kix:                       

Hey everybody, it's Paul. Just a quick word of warning before we get going. My mic got janky on me about halfway through the interview and I didn't realize it at the time and I didn't want to bag the interview or ask Don to rerecord it, so please, if you don't mind, just put up with my tinny and distant sounding voice at about the 30 minute mark.

 

Hello and welcome to another episode of Now That's a Great Story, the podcast that examines the single story from the world's greatest writers as a way to reveal an artistic worldview and teach you along the way to be just as creative. I'm your host, Paul Kix. My guest today is Don van Natta, a two-time Pulitzer prize winner and a colleague of mine at ESPN. Don is the host and lead reporter and pretty much the major domo of Backstory, a documentary television series that examines unresolved sports stories of the past and present. Don is also the founder and lead curator of the Sunday Long Read newsletter, which highlights the week's best long form journalism, a newsletter I've been getting for years.

 

Don's covered the war on terror, malpractice on the part of news corp, and Rupert Murdoch. But today, Don and I are going to talk about golf, specifically a chapter of Don's New York Times bestselling book, First Off the Tee, which is about the love and hate affair US presidents have with the game and how it is a reflection of their political identities. It's a charming book, but it's also one that's subtly profound. It ends up being, in my mind, a probing look at the men who run the world from the perspective of the game that ruins their days. So Don, thank you for coming on the show.

Don Van Natta, Jr.:              

Thanks for having me, Paul. It's great to be with you.

 

Paul Kix: 

So we're, can I talk about the time you went golfing with President Clinton, but first, why did you, and you were at the time, you were a hard ass sort of investigative reporter at the New York Times. Why is it at that time that you want to write a book about golf?

 

Don Van Natta, Jr.:   

Well, it was really by accident and actually Bill Clinton is the reason why this book exists, because back in 1999 while I was in the Washington Bureau of the New York Times, in the summer of '99, I wrote a piece for the week in review section of the times about Bill Clinton's habit of taking extra shots when he plays golf. This was about six months after he escaped being removed from office by the Senate, after being impeached in the Monica Lewinsky scandal, something that I covered every day for a year rigorously for the Times. And that summer he was playing golf in 1999 at Farm Neck Golf Club in Martha's Vineyard and other golf courses around the country and shooting ridiculously great scores like a 79 after taking three shots off the first tee. Any golfer will tell you when that happens, you're starting with three extra shots, how are you shooting a 79, so it raised this whole question of mulligans and extra shots and whether they actually counted against his score.

 

And so I saw it as a metaphor for Bill Clinton's entire presidency. The fact that he was getting mulligans from his playing partners and it, of course, could be argued that the Senate gave him a mulligan on the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Hillary Clinton had given them some mulligans in their marriage. And so I wrote a kind of tongue in cheek fun story about Bill Clinton's habit of taking extra shots when he plays golf. And I heard about it about a week later after the story was published from Terry McAuliffe, one of his playing partners who has since been the Governor of Virginia and McAuliffe called me. He was on vacation with Clinton and said, Bill Clinton is furious at you. The president is so angry about that story.

 

And I said, well, wait a minute, Terry. I've written stories about Bill Clinton selling out the Lincoln bedroom to the highest bidder. I've written all these stories about the Monica Lewinsky scandal that I know he didn't like. This is just a fun story about golf playing and why is he so angry about this? And Terry quickly said, "Well, those other stories bothered him too. But this is different." Then he paused for a moment, very dramatically, Paul, and he said, "The President takes his golf game very seriously." Just like that.

 

And it was at that moment when I thought, okay, maybe there's a book in this. Why do American presidents care so much about the way their constituents view how they play golf? And so the more I thought about it, the more I thought this is off-brand for me, I'm this hard-charging investigative reporter for the New York Times. I was always sort of a frustrated would-be sportswriter. This was a perfect opportunity to meld politics and sports in kind of a way that I thought might be fun and have a little, have a laugh with it. And so I launched First Off the Tee and worked on it over the next couple of years.

 

Paul Kix: 

So there are a lot of fascinating anecdotes to this and one of them I wanted us to dwell on before we start to talk about Clinton. Can you tell the audience the time that it looked like Jack Kennedy might get a hole in one?

 

Don Van Natta, Jr.:  

Yeah, that's one of my favorite anecdotes. So in 1960, Jack Kennedy is the nominee for, or he's about to accept the nomination to be the democratic presidential candidate running against Richard Nixon. And he's playing at Cypress Point and he hits a beautiful shot on a par three and the ball is headed right for the hole and he's screaming for the ball not to go in. And his playing partners are like, what are you talking about? And the ball doesn't quite go in. It almost does. And Jack Kennedy says, "If that ball had gone in that hole, word would have gone out all across the country instantly that another golfer is trying to get into the White House." And he was referring to Dwight Eisenhower who-

 

Paul Kix:  

Played so much golf during this time.

 

Don Van Natta, Jr.:  

Yeah, that's right. He played 800 rounds during his eight years. And Jack Kennedy was one of the most vocal critics of Ike and his golf playing, saying it was sort of an example of him being a detached Republican, an older president who really didn't care much about governing, cared far much more about getting out with his friends at Augusta, particularly Augusta National, where Ike was a member, a famous member.

 

And so that anecdote said so much about politics, the worry about golf, what golf represents. Look, it's a rich man's game. And so Kennedy was a great golfer by the way, the best of all the presidential golfers. He was a member of the Harvard Golf Team and really, really good at the game. And yet he did not want that hole in one to happen.

 

Paul Kix: 

Yeah. And he had, I've seen footage of him, and I think you even describe it in the book, he had a really effortless swing and it's like ... it almost looked like a pro. If we can transition to you for just a minute, like did you have the same sort of passion for the game as say Clinton did or Ike did or other presidents who've played a lot?

 

Don Van Natta, Jr.:  

That's a great question, Paul. Not as much as a Clinton and Ike and the really passionate presidents. I love golf. Around the time I was in college and in my twenties, my first job out of college was at the Miami Herald. So in South Florida on a lot of weekends I would get out and play. So in my twenties is probably the best I've ever been as a golfer. But the best I've ever been was shooting about a 90, mid-90s, never was I that great, but I was very passionate about it when I was younger. But I love the game. I used to play with my dad often and with friends. And so, I know the frustrations of it and I was able to bring those frustrations, I think to the writing.

 

Paul Kix: 

We're going to talk about Clinton, but I want to ask because there's just fascinating thing about Clinton and mulligans that you were alluding to a minute ago, but I want to ask about the extent that you know about anything about our current president. Do you have any sense for his golf game? Do you have any sense for any mulligans that he might be taking?

 

Don Van Natta, Jr.:  

All I know about Donald Trump's game is that there's a pretty wide reputation out there that he cheats at the game. You know, he claims to shoot a 72, 73, 74, just a couple of strokes over being a scratch golfer. You know, he plays all the time, we know that. I actually interviewed Donald Trump for First Off the Tee and right before I played my round with Bill Clinton, I called Trump because Trump had played golf with Clinton and I wanted to get a sense of what it was like. You know, this is, I think typical of Trump. He sort of projects his own failings on other people and very quickly told me Clinton cheats at golf. He loves mulligans. Trump could remember that he shot a 73 in his round with Clinton, but couldn't remember what Clinton had shot. But knew that Clinton had taken a lot of extra shots and was very quick to tell me that.

 

Don Van Natta, Jr.:  

The other reason I called Trump is because Bill Clinton, at the time, was struggling to find a course that would accept him, a club that would accept him in Westchester County. He had just moved to Chappaqua, New York. This is in 2002 just a couple of years after he left the White House and Bill Clinton couldn't find a country club that would accept him as a member, and Donald Trump had just bought a golf course in Westchester County, which ended up being the Trump International Golf Club in Westchester County. So I, in a very forward way, Paul, said to Trump, "Look, I'm playing golf with Bill Clinton tomorrow. Do you want me to ask him whether or not he would want to be a member of your club?" Because there had been reports that Trump was considering inviting him and he said, "No, no, no, not yet. Let me keep thinking about it." And it turned out the following year after, First Off the Tee was published, the first club that Bill Clinton belonged to in Westchester County was Trump's golf club.

 

Paul Kix: 

Why was it that Clinton had such a hard time gaining a membership after his presidency?

 

Don Van Natta, Jr.:  

I think part of it is because he was a Democrat and a lot of these country clubs in Westchester County were very Republican. He was not popular when he left the White House. Another part of it is just the fact that when presidents play golf, they take over the golf course. Members are inconvenienced, there are Secret Service running around. Often there is a two-hole buffer between a president and anybody else for security reasons, so it was just an inconvenience, I think, that was part of it as well, but Winged Foot, which is one of the most prestigious golf courses in the country, not just in Westchester County, was a course that, and a club that Bill Clinton wanted to join and they wanted absolutely nothing to do with him.

 

Paul Kix: 

So let's set the stage for this round. You wrote the story that you talked about a minute ago about Clinton and McAuliffe goes ahead and comments on it. What was it exactly? Did you ever get a sense before you played that round with him, why exactly it is that Bill Clinton takes his golf so very seriously?

 

Don Van Natta, Jr.:  

It was a chance for him to escape a lot of pressures of the Oval Office, particularly in 1998 when he was impeached and he was battling the Monica Lewinsky scandal that entire year. I mean, there was this great moment that year where he's playing at the Army Navy Golf Club outside Washington, DC, which was one of his favorite places to play near the White House, and it's a rainy late afternoon and it starts getting dark and Clinton's out there alone playing golf in the rain at the height of the Lewinsky scandal. He loved the game. He played as a kid. He's kind of a public course, pedigreed golfer, used to play, actually at Oaklawn Racetrack. There was a nine hole golf course there where he used to play as a kid. You know, his hero was John F. Kennedy. He knew Kennedy was a great golfer with that effortless swing that you mentioned before, Paul. And I think he just wanted to be this cool golf playing president.

 

And despite the fact that polling showed, in fact, Clinton polled everything, and at one point, Dick Morris, his political advisor polled what Clinton should be doing during his vacation, and the polling showed that he should be climbing mountains and riding horses and not playing golf. And Clinton was like, "Well, I'm not doing that." He tried it for a day, hated it, and then went out on the golf course. It's one of the few polls that Clinton actually rejected while he was a president. So he was passionate. He loved the game, but he wanted everybody to think he was a better golfer than he was. And that's really the essence of Bill Clinton is that he wanted everyone to believe that he was a high seventies, sharp shooting golfer, and unfortunately that wasn't the truth. So he invented a devious way of trying to tell the public he was a far better golfer than he really was.

 

Paul Kix: 

It's certainly true. So one thing that I loved about this is, you were mentioning this just a minute ago about him and playing in the rain. He hit balls off the South Lawn. He would play sometimes in absolute darkness. It's just, it's crazy the extent to which, during all of the Lewinsky affair and everything that was happening with him and his personal life, cause I can only imagine that Hillary Clinton and Bill have a pretty frosty relationship at this point, that golf is, it's probably, as you were mentioning a minute ago, it's his one outlet, but it's also this place that he becomes like kind of obsessed over. It's almost like he's playing as many rounds as Ike, right?

 

Don Van Natta, Jr.:  

Yes. So I asked him actually how many rounds he felt he had played during his eight, eight years in the oval office. And I guessed just from my research, roughly 400 maybe, maybe a few less than that. And when I asked him that, he said that that sounds about right, so that's about half the number that Ike played. But he would have played far more, Paul, if he had the opportunity to do so. There was a lot of stretches because of the Lewinsky scandal, because of the Whitewater scandal and other things going on that he just couldn't play when he wanted to play. But he played sometimes despite all that, as well, as I point out in the book. But that's still pretty prolific for an American president.

 

Paul Kix: 

So there's something that's kind of revealing to me about this book and about Clinton and this runs through all the chapters. This is why I think in the end, this is a book that's really much more of a political biography than it is a sporting biography. So McAuliffe calls you and says, "Hey, he's pissed." Right? And you were saying just a minute ago, I've written so many stories about him that are far more consequential and he's pissed off about this. Like, that's kind of amazing. That's a revelation in itself. But then he agrees to golf with you. And Clinton is a really smart guy so I doubt that he forgot who you were. So do you have any insight into why it was that he agreed to play with you that day?

 

Don Van Natta, Jr.:  

That's a great question. So the backstory to that is really interesting. I was working on the book, I was coming up on my book deadline. I signed the book contract in late 1999, so it was while Clinton was still president. The book was delayed by 9/11. It was actually due around 9/11, but because of 9/11 and I worked on that story nonstop for the New York Times out of the Washington Bureau. So the deadline got delayed a year until September of 2002. So just a month before my book deadline, all through the spring and summer of 2002, I'm pushing to get a round with Bill Clinton. I had interviewed Gerald Ford on the phone for the book. I had done an email interview with George Herbert Walker Bush, George W. Bush would not play with me. So the last sort of big get, and maybe the biggest get was Bill Clinton, because, of course, I was writing the book, as I said earlier, in large part because of Bill Clinton.

 

So all during those months, Paul, as I'm approaching my book deadline, I'm asking Terry McAuliffe, I'm asking other friends of Clinton who I know are his golfing buddies to try to help me land a round with him. And it didn't look good. I kept hearing, I'm not so sure it's going to happen. This is in the summer of 2002, Clinton has just started to his Clinton Foundation. He was traveling around the world. And then in early August, just a month before my book deadline, I get an email and it's the best email I will ever get in my life. In the subject line it said, Golf with President. And it came from an aid of his and Terry McAuliffe had helped set up the round. It was in the dead of summer, in August of 2002, and we set up a place to play.

 

Now, initially we were going to play at the Mount Kisco Golf Club and I was told to call there and set up a tee time for me and the President, which is kind of a, when you think about it, an amazing request for an aid of Bill Clinton to ask a reporter to do, but I did. And when I called the Mount Kisco Golf Club, the guy I spoke to on the phone, in a very haughty manner, said, "Well, he's not a member here.", like that. And so it really drove home the point, Paul, that the former President of the United States was not welcome at this golf course, just down the road from his house in Chappaqua, New York. So I let the aid know that. He said, "All right, we'll take care of the round." And then a day or two later, I heard that we were going to play at a place called the Golf Club of Purchase, New York, which was a relatively new course, it had just opened up within a year. And so on August 12th, we went out there and I say we, it was Bill Clinton and me and two democratic fundraisers joined us, so that was the foursome.

 

Paul Kix: 

Does Clinton, Don, remember who you are from a couple of years prior and the story you had written about him when you show up that day?

 

Don Van Natta, Jr.:  

Right. So we show up at the Golf Club of Purchase, New York. He steps out of a black Suburban surrounded by Secret Service agents. Makes a beeline for me, shakes my hand. I thank him for joining me for that day for the book I'm wearing a Farm Neck Golf Club hat, which is one of his favorite golf courses up in Martha's vineyard, which I had played earlier that summer. He looked at it, and he said, "Oh, I'm going to be playing there in about a week on my birthday." And then as we started walking toward the clubhouse, he stopped for a moment, looked me right in the eye with those blue eyes, those piercing blue eyes of his and said, "I'll give you a mulligan anytime you want it." And that was his way, Paul, of saying to me, "I know why we're here." You said I was a cheat at golf, van Natta, and now I am here to prove that I'm not, and if we're going to make a deal, then maybe you can take some mulligans. I'll take a few mulligans if that's what we're going to do.

 

Now, I didn't say anything, I just laughed and nothing was really said again about mulligans, really actually until we got out on the golf course, but Bill Clinton clearly knew that I was there just to have a scorecard with that little pencil and count every one of his strokes, so I could put it in my book. And I was absolutely convinced, Paul, that the only reason he agreed to play with me was to show me and the world that I was wrong back in 1999 in that Week in Review story and he had 18 holes of an opportunity to prove me wrong.

 

Paul Kix: 

Let's get to the big match here. So who hits first? Do you hit first or does he hit first?

 

Don Van Natta, Jr.:  

He, he hits first and hits a pretty good shot, but when it was my turn to shoot, I was so nervous and convinced that I was just going to shank the ball, and literally thought to myself, this round is Bill Clinton's revenge because I'm a crappy golfer. I think he knew that from McAuliffe and it's like, that was another thing that was going through my mind is he was just going to, I was going to have to play 18 holes in front of the former President of the United States. Somehow on that first tee I hit the ball straight and pretty far and it was maybe the most, the best and most beautiful golf shot I'll ever hit, but it was all downhill from there. After that, I just started playing horribly. I was so nervous and so worried that I was not going to capture Bill Clinton and everything he was doing. I had to interview him. It was an interview via golf cart basically over the 18 holes. And so I was a wreck the rest of the round, but I did hit that first ball straight and true, which I'll never forget.

Paul Kix:                  

After his drive, how does he end up playing? I believe it's a par four, right, that first hole?

 

Don Van Natta, Jr.:  

It's a par four on the first hole. Well he plays the first hole pretty straight, so it's the second hole where he shanks the ball and then goes, "Damn it.", and then takes another ball out of his pocket and then hits it again. And so he was, as I like to say, he was on his best behavior with me playing golf for about a hole and a half and it was almost like a switch was thrown on that second fairway where he just resorted to his normal playing of golf. And that is, he takes lots of shots. It's almost like he practices while he plays and look, we had a scorecard, we were all keeping score and yet he would take three shots off the tee. Sometimes I saw him take three shots off the fairway. I witnessed more than a few no putt pars that were given to him by his democratic playing partners.

 

Paul Kix:  

And how long are these no putt pars?

 

Don Van Natta, Jr.:  

Some as far as some, as long as eight, nine, 12 feet. You know, that's good. But the thing that he does, and I describe this in the book, these are not mulligans, they're Billigans. And I want to talk about where that phrase-

 

Paul Kix: 

Yeah, yeah. Please do.

 

Don Van Natta, Jr.:  

Came from. It's this devious form of a mulligan in the sense that he'll take three shots off the tee and then he gets out on the fairway and there's three Bill Clinton golf balls out there. Inevitably one of them is out of bounds, is OB, but sometimes there's two or there's one on the fringe and he'll get out there and he'll ask his democratic playing partners and me, which one was my first one again, because he's trying to make a show that he follows the rules. Well inevitably, his playing partners, these democratic money men who he played with before will say, "Mr. President, it's this one over here.", And they would point to the golf ball that was either his second or his third shot. And so he, he sort of almost feigns ignorance as he's playing.

 

Paul Kix: 

Yeah, that's a Billigan. And this is blatant. This is right in front of you. And what does that end up saying about Bill Clinton and his character?

 

Don Van Natta, Jr.:  

It shows lots of things about his character. Number one, it's almost impossible for him to tell the truth. And the way he does it is, he does it through charm. He charms you and charms his playing partners into almost becoming co-conspirators with him into playing this sort of shell game with golf balls, that at the end of the 18 holes is going put a much better score on his scorecard than he would've gotten without it. I think that he just, I think he forgot, it's hard to believe, Paul, but I really believe that once he got out there, he's just used to playing that way. I've had a lot of his playing partners tell me prior to that and since the book was published, that's what he always does. And so I think he got relaxed with me. We went out on the driving range before the round.

 

We were talking, we were laughing and I think before he knew it, he just forgot that I was a journalist, which is hard to believe. Now the other thing I should say is I'm playing golf, so I needed somebody almost to be an official scorekeeper of what was going on out there because I'm not always right next to Bill Clinton. Any golfer will tell you, you're scattered all over a fairway and I'm chasing after my own ball and oftentimes more than one ball because he would give me extra shots too. That's the other thing he does. I mean, I got some no putt par gimmes as well. That's what he does. He lavishes on you what he is taking himself. That's why it's this fascinating sort of charm-laden exercise where it's ... being with Bill Clinton is so much fun and he's so smart and he's so charming. But all of that is sort of what's happening and you're drunk with all of that while he's taking lots and lots of extra shots.

 

So the official scorekeeper of our round was a guy named John Files who was a clerk in the New York Times, Washington Bureau. He helped me with the research for, First Off the Tee. He's actually a really good golfer. He would have given Clinton a much better game than I would have, had he played. John was there counting every single stroke that Bill Clinton took. So I was trying to pay attention. I could tell, obviously he was taking three shots off the tee, but oftentimes he was taking multiple shots off the fairway or around the green when I was elsewhere on the course and John Files was there with the Secret Service folks in a golf cart counting every single stroke that Bill Clinton took. And oftentimes I think Clinton thought I wasn't looking because I wasn't looking, but John Files was looking and recording everything. That's another way that we were able to really record precisely what happened during those 18 holes.

 

Paul Kix: 

I'm glad you said that because I'm a golfer and there are a lot of times when I'll play a round with my buddies or whatever, you end up just getting so focused on what you're doing that you're like, "Oh, I don't know what it is.", It breaks that sort of social decorum, if you say, "What really?" Like, "You got a bogey there? Come on."

 

Don Van Natta, Jr.:   

That's right.

 

Paul Kix: 

I'm not so sure, friend.

 

Don Van Natta, Jr.:  

That's right. And there was another admission that he made, Paul, while we were playing, he admitted that he plays what he calls double bogey limit golf. So in other words, the most that he will ever score himself on a scorecard is a double bogey. And he just admitted it, he says, "I played double bogey limit." Like that's the worst that he's ever going to shoot. Of course, when we were out there, you know, there were times when he had an eight or a nine, let's say on a par five and a seven was recorded or on a par four, a six was recorded when he actually, technically should've had a 10 or a 12 because you took so many multiple shots. So I mean, what was on the scorecard was really just fiction. It was just, it was nonsense.

 

Paul Kix: 

All right, so one thing I found really fascinating, he's giving you pointers along the way for your own game.

 

Don Van Natta, Jr.:  

Yes.

 

Paul Kix: 

What are these pointers?

 

Don Van Natta, Jr.:  

Well, there were many pointers. First of all, he thought that the clubs I had were too short. He said they should have been at least two inches taller, that I was crouched down too much.

 

Paul Kix: 

And that's because what you're, I'm 6'4 and when I've met you in the office, like you're around that size too. I do have clubs that are two inches longer than standard.

 

Don Van Natta, Jr.:  

Yes. And I don't, and Bill Clinton figured that out very quickly. He thought my tee shot was awful because I try to crush the ball on the tee. I'm not bad on the tee if I relax, but I was pressing and I was trying to really kill the ball and he would say to me, "You're hitting it all wrong." So at one point he puts me in a behind the back bear hug while I'm on the tee getting ready to tee off to show me sort of the way I should be standing. And so it's a very uncomfortable feeling to have the former President of the United States wrapping you in a behind the back bear hug, with his sort of crotch right up against my butt. It was a very sort of intimate embrace, to be honest.

 

 I mean, I'm already, the sweats pouring down my back. The other thing I should tell your listeners, Paul, is this was as hot as a blast furnace this day. This is the dead of August, hot as hell, mid-90s. Bill Clinton's wearing shorts and a polo shirt, so were the money men. Ridiculously, ludicrously, I'm wearing long pants. Now, why I decided to do that, I have no idea. So the sweat is pouring off of me. Clinton has me in this behind the back bear hug trying to show me how to hit, constantly giving me tips around the green, how to hold the putter, what to do, chattering at me nonstop. Really looking down his nose at my game and just, I think he just saw me as a ludicrous figure out there, which I was, I mean, you know, he was diagnosing it correctly and I was a journalist who cared more about getting the story, getting the quotes right, making sure I had his score right than I was in trying to impress him as a golfer and I wouldn't have anyway, but I really, I looked like a clown out there.

 

Paul Kix: 

Yeah. I want to spend just a beat more on this because this is a guy who a, knows you wrote that story that infuriated him on the "Billigans", right?

 

Don Van Natta, Jr.:  

 Yes.

 

Paul Kix: 

He's taking shots left and right today. He's not putting out and c, he's telling you how you can be playing better. And I kind of just want to ask the same question I asked a minute ago. Like, what the hell, what do you make of all that? What does that end up revealing about Bill Clinton, the man?

 

Don Van Natta, Jr.:  

I think he set out once we got out there, I don't think he agreed to play with me to humiliate me, although I do write in the book that that was something I thought the night before. I thought that maybe this round is Bill Clinton's revenge for that story a few years earlier, but certainly once we got out there, I think it occurred to him like this is the guy that took me apart in the New York Times' Week in Review, for the way I play golf? This clown? This guy who has no idea what he's doing on the golf course is the guy that took me apart? And not just that, of course he knew about all the other stories that I had written about him as well. So I think there was a little bit of an impulse that he indulged in to sort of embarrass me when he could. You know, part of you-

 

Paul Kix: 

Do you think that's what was with those pointers, like is this him one-upping you in the moment, just under a different name?

 

Don Van Natta, Jr.:

He agreed to play with me. I really think the reason he agreed to play with me is he thought, I'm going to charm this guy into writing in his book about presidential golf, that I'm a presidential golfer worthy of my hero, JFK. I really think his motivation was to sort of go out there and persuade me that he's as good a golfer as he was telling everybody he was during his eight years in office, but once we got out there and he saw that I really had no business being out there as a golfer, I'm nowhere near as good as him or his two playing partners who were also pretty good golfers. I think at that point he indulged the impulse to sort of, okay, I'm going to needle him a little bit. This guy put me under a lot of pressure.

 

Look, I did a story in 1999, a story that Clinton absolutely hated. In fact, that's what made it so surprising when McAuliffe told me he hated this golf story so much. On Superbowl Sunday 1999, the lead story in the New York Times that morning was story under my byline that said that Kenneth Starr, the independent counsel had concluded that he had the constitutional right to indict Bill Clinton for lying to the grand jury while he was still in office. That was my scoop. It was my story. I heard from McAuliffe and other people close to Clinton, he hated that story. It ruined a Superbowl Sunday.

 

So is it possible just a few years later, those stories that I did, I mean many about the Lewinsky scandal, the blue dress, all sorts of things that annoyed him, that angered him. Here's a chance to go out on a golf course, see this guy who had made his life miserable at times and is looking foolish out there and to maybe, okay, here's some pointers, Don. You took me apart for my golf game. Now I'm going to try to give you a moving lesson to improve your game and also to embarrass you a little bit in front of these other guys and the Secret Service and John Files. I mean, there was half a dozen to a dozen people out there all watching all this stuff. And so yeah, I think that that definitely crossed his mind.

 

Paul Kix: 

And this is really a reason why I love First Off the Tee. It's kind of like in my mind, Richard Ben Cramer's, What it Takes. And for anybody that hasn't read that out there, this is, for me, I don't know how you feel about What it Takes, but it's-

 

Don Van Natta, Jr.:  

Oh, it's the best. It's the best, I think is the best. It's the best political book of all time. Absolutely. So that's, yeah, so mentioning it in the same breath as Richard Ben Cramer's classic, Paul, is very high praise in the same breath. Yeah.

 

Paul Kix: 

Here's the reason why I'm comparing those two because it is, Richard Ben Cramer's book, again, for those who haven't read it, I highly recommend it. I'll include this in the show notes for this episode, but it's like it's a thousand pages, thousand plus pages, I think, right Don? And it's, it's about the 1988 presidential campaign. Ben Kramer went so deep on it that it doesn't even appear until, I want to say what like 1992, actually I think just before Clinton was elected into office, right?

 

Don Van Natta, Jr.:  

Yeah. That's right. Yes.

 

Paul Kix: 

So he profiles every political candidate running for the presidency in 1988, but both Ben Cramer's book and yours, Don, they're psychological examinations of what it takes to be president. That's what I came away from reading your book, what it took for Bill Clinton to do president. It's just that yours is getting at it through a different prism and also it's not taking up nearly as many pages.

 

Don Van Natta, Jr.:  

Well, look, I thank you for saying that. That's very high praise. The goal that I had when I set out to write, First Off the Tee was exactly what you said, was to try, through golf, use golf as a prism into the character of each of these men who were president. What does it say about their character? What does it say about the choices they made while they were in the Oval Office, before they got there and even after they left. That was the conceit of the book and as you said earlier, and I think correctly, it's less a book about sports and golf and more about politics and about character. And I was really trying with each of these chapters of each of the presidents to try to draw a sort of presidential sketches through golf, through game playing through, if somebody, you know the old saying, you can tell a lot about a person by the third hole when you play golf with them. Well that's really, really true when it comes to the presidents. They really let their guards down and their stories are great and there's a lot of humor too.

 

The other great appeal of this project, for me as somebody who was writing a lot of really serious stuff for the New York Times as an investigative reporter, was a chance to write humor and write satire and have fun at the presidents' expense, quite frankly.

 

Paul Kix: 

There's one moment I want to focus on, which is, I think it's on the back nine, can you tell the story about the time that the caddy says hit this with an open club face?

 

Don Van Natta, Jr.:  

Right. So this is toward the end of the back nine in my round with Bill Clinton and he gets advice from a caddy. Clinton is behind a tree near the green, so it sort of, we're off the green, I think it's the 16th hole, if memory serves. We all have caddies, so you know, he, he was, and he was seeking advice from this caddy more than once. And the caddy gave him advice about an open club face. Clinton hits the ball the way the caddy tells him, the ball hits the tree and ricochets behind him. And Clinton goes nuts. I mean red face, that anger that I saw when he was answering those questions by Ken Starr's prosecutors on videotape about the Monica Lewinsky scandal. That's probably the angriest I ever saw him when he was president.

 

I saw that anger on the golf course and he's swearing, he seething, he tries it again, he tries another shot. It doesn't go well either.

 

Paul Kix: 

Didn't that one hit a tree?

 

Don Van Natta, Jr.:  

That one hit the tree as well. So hits the tree twice, which is hard to do. Right? I mean, a golfer will tell you that and he's so mad and he just stomps off. He doesn't even finish the hole. He just stomps off, blames the caddy, was furious at the caddy and stomps off to the golf cart and then magically on the next tee, the anger is gone. And it was another revealing thing about Bill Clinton. Bill Clinton had a reputation when he was president of compartmentalizing all of this bad stuff. And there was a lot of bad stuff.

 

There were a lot of scandals, there were a lot of things that didn't go right. You know, he's a brilliant communicator, a great leader, and he had a way of just setting that bad news aside and moving on. And that's exactly what we saw on the golf course. As angry as he was, and he was furious, the next tee, you wouldn't even have known it.

 

Paul Kix: 

What did he card that day?

 

Don Van Natta, Jr.:  

So here's the remarkable thing. At the end of the round, there's an 82 next to his name on the scorecard, which he signs. I ask him to sign the scorecard. He happily does it. In fact, there's a photograph of him signing it while I'm standing there with a sort of sheepish grin watching him do it. John Files, my a researcher on the book who was out there counting every single stroke Clinton took, and to be fair, some of them were three or four putts on a green where he was sort of clearly practicing. But by the end of the round that he had an 82 on a scorecard, he had taken nearly 200 swings to get there, which is remarkable. It's just a remarkable stat. But the thing about it is, Paul, again, to get to what this says about Bill Clinton, is Bill Clinton is absolutely sure that he is somebody who legitimately shoots a 79, an 80, an 82. He's convinced himself of that. In fact, he told a story while we were playing that he felt that he was only six months of practice away from joining the PGA Senior Tour. Now my jaw must've dropped when he said that because he then sort of tried to persuade me how that would have been possible if he had really set his mind to it and practiced nonstop.

 

Don Van Natta, Jr.:  

 And you know, it was one of the things that I was left with and it's one of the conclusions of the chapter, is that here's a guy who was 56 years old and who has had a charmed life from the youngest age and whatever he sets his mind to doing politically, he has been able to make happen, mostly through his magnetic personality and his charm. And he certainly has had a lot of luck go his way too. But here's somebody who's 56 years old, he's no longer president and he believes he's only six months of practice away from joining the Senior PGA Tour, a guy who needs 200 swings to card an 82, it's pretty amazing.

 

Paul Kix: 

It's kind of galling. And when you talk about it now in hindsight, it's easy to get a sense for, God, what a cheat. I wouldn't want to golf with somebody like that, but I want to ask a question. When you guys finish up that round and you know he's taken, I don't know if you guys had figured out right away that he'd taken 200 shots, but you know he's taken far more than the 82 that he cards. Are you kind of pissed that he would lie about it or does his charm, does his magnetism come through and you're just kind of like, "Ah, it was a lot of fun." Like, where are you emotionally after the round?

 

Don Van Natta, Jr.:  

Well, we went to the clubhouse and that was an experience too, because you know, we went to the bathroom together. We're literally standing at the urinals together and Clinton is chattering with me about Argentina while we're both taking a leak in the clubhouse. And then we end up going upstairs into this lovely clubhouse where I had a beer and the democratic fundraisers, we all had beers, but Bill Clinton had a diet Coke and I'll never forget there was a woman behind the bar, 30 year old, attractive, either bartender or waitress. And as soon as we walked into the clubhouse and there was about 10 people there, Bill Clinton made a beeline to her and she had a plate of cookies in front of her and Bill Clinton grabbed a chocolate chip cookie and the woman shook Bill Clinton's and she said, "Oh, Mr. President, I wish you could have run for a third term."

 

And Clinton paused a moment, bit his bottom lip the way he often does and he said, "I would if I could.", just like that and so, you know, it was surreal, Paul. And to answer your question, I was just thinking how much fun it was. I knew he had taken a lot of extra shots. The term Billigan's actually was coined by a friend of mine named Fran Brennan, a fellow writer of mine. We worked together at the Miami Herald years ago. When I told her about the round and I said he took all these extra mulligans. She said, Oh, well they're not mulligans, they're Billigans. So it was actually her invention, this term that actually is now on Urban Dictionary and Clinton's been asked about as his Billigans by David Feherty and all sorts of other people. I mean my book made it famous, but it was my friend Fran Brennan who coined the phrase, I wasn't even thinking Billigans or mulligans. I was thinking he took a lot of extra shots. It was incredibly fun.

 

He told lots of great stories about playing with Arnold Palmer and Greg Norman and Michael Jordan, which I knew was going to be great for my book. We also talked politics too. He talked about Al Gore to leaving them on the sidelines in 2000 during the stretch run when Gore was running against George W. Bush for the White House. And how much that hurt Bill Clinton's feelings. So I was just sort of drunk with any journalists' sort of feeling that I had great material. And so I wasn't angry at him for taking the extra shots. I was a little bit sort of in awe of how brazen he was about it and I was a little surprised that he did it. But to be honest with you, I was less focused on that and more just focused on what a good time it was and how my chapter was made.

 

When you're doing a book you just want great material. And I was so lucky. I have to tell you, Paul, I mean that chapter was excerpted by Sports Illustrated when my book was published in March of 2003. It helped the book become a national bestseller, a New York Times bestseller. It sold many, many copies in hardcover, far exceeded any expectations I had for the book in large part because Bill Clinton agreed to play golf with me that day and played the way he played. So I look back at it now across all these years, I'm just grateful to him for agreeing to play with me and then playing the way he played because it was such a revealing round and it really did make my book.

 

Paul Kix: 

We talked at the beginning of this interview about how you went into it thinking that it was revenge that he was after. Was this round and the brazen nature of his play, a form of forgiveness on his part? Was it a form of him knowing that I can help make this guy's book, so I will do him a solid even though I've, in my mind been, scorned by him in the past?

 

Don Van Natta, Jr.:  

I don't know. That's a good question. I've had friends give me all sorts of theories about what was really going on there. I don't know whether Clinton really thought much about it. I don't think he thought about it necessarily in that way, that I'm giving him a gift. I do think that he can't help himself. He is charming. He's trying to persuade every single person he meets that he really likes them, he's curious about them. I mean, I mentioned in the book, he asks about my childhood, about where I went to college. He did a little bit of homework on me with Terry McAuliffe. He paid me a couple of complements as well, about my reporting, which couldn't have been easy for him because so much of my reporting was negative about his presidency and so I think that he was, he set out to really come across well in my book.

 

I really think that, that's the main reason he agreed to do it. I think Terry McAuliffe vouching for me certainly helped get Clinton over the hump of the negative feelings he likely felt toward me about all the reporting I did when I was at the Times and certainly about that golf story that he hated so much. But I think that I ... I don't think he was really thinking much when he went out there and then I think he saw the opportunity, maybe needle me a little bit, he seized that opportunity. He answered all my questions. The one thing I will say that I really am grateful to him is I asked him a lot of uncomfortable questions about his relationship with Al Gore, political stuff, about the impeachment year and even uncomfortable questions about golf. And he answered every one of them. He never said off the record. He never glared at me.

 

He really went in there open minded and pretty much with an open heart that, I'm going to just go out there and see what happens. And we played a long time when you play with Bill Clinton and there's, he takes nearly 200 swings. The round took six hours. I mean we were out there, we were out there a really long time and then we hung out even longer in the clubhouse just shooting the bull. And I got the feeling he would've stayed even longer. You know, he could have stayed as long as he wanted and it was another hour to 90 minutes afterwards that we were just hanging out telling more stories about golf. I mean, he really wanted to prove to me that he loves the game, that he respects the game and he respects the rules. He certainly proved he loves the game, but he did not prove the respects of the rules.

 

Paul Kix: 

No, he didn't. All right, so you and I were talking before we recorded this, we were talking about this beforehand, about which piece, which book, which story would be right. And I remember you pretty quickly saying, Oh well we should do the Clinton chapter in, First Off the Tee. Why is this the one?

Don Van Natta, Jr.:  

I think it's because I can see a through line, Paul, from that chapter and that opportunity I had to do First Off the Tee, it was my first book and it's the book of the three books I've done. I co-wrote a book about Hillary Clinton and then I did a biography of Babe Didrikson Zaharias. But First Off the Tee was my first book. It's the book I love the most and I can really picture the through line from that chapter to my current life at ESPN. When I interviewed for a job, I was recruited to come to ESPN in the summer of 2011, so it was after 16 years at the New York Times and I was in my mid-forties and thinking about maybe making a career switch and when I interviewed with Vince Doria and John Walsh, they knew about First Off the Tee. They had read the book, they loved the book, they loved the Clinton chapter and I'm absolutely convinced that that chapter helped set up my current life, which I'm so grateful for. I'm an investigative sports reporter in a pretty wide open playing field. I'm lucky enough now to be hosting my own docu-series. I think all of that extends from that afternoon with Bill Clinton.

 

Paul Kix: 

Wow. Don, thank you for coming on the show. The music for Now That's a Great Story comes from Jeff Willett. If you liked this episode, please remember to rate and review it wherever it is that you listen to podcasts. If you'd like to get a short weekly email from me that details what else I like from the world of books and movies and TV and music, the artists whose work inspires me, whose wisdom I take notes on because I know I'll use it in my own work, please head to Paulkix.com/newsletter and sign up. Don has been gracious enough to have some of that appear in his own Sunday newsletter. So Don, thank you so much.

Don Van Natta, Jr.:  

Thank you, Paul. We're thrilled to have you on the team. It's been great.

 

Paul Kix: 

We'll be back soon with another episode. Have a good one, everybody. Bye-bye.

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