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Working for Barack

February 18, 2010

I was reading the recent New Yorker profile of Arne Duncan, the secretary of education, when it hit me: I'm never going to be offered a job with the Obama administration. Not that I want a job, you understand; I'd just like to be offered a job. It's not going to happen, though. It's the basketball thing.

The example of Arne Duncan makes this apparent. Does he know education? He ran the Chicago public schools, so I'm sure he does. Plus he went to Harvard, so we know he's smart. But let's be honest. The reason he's in the cabinet is he's six-foot-five, played pro basketball in Australia, and competed in pickup games with Barack Obama for twenty years on the south side of Chicago. Me? No to all the above. So a cabinet job is out.

I know a couple people who were offered jobs in the Obama administration. One was a teacher at the high school my older two attended — a former law partner of Obama's. I heard he'd been offered a job in the Department of Education; no doubt he'd gotten a call from Arne. I asked him about it after my daughter's graduation. Chief of staff or undersecretary of something — I didn't catch all the details. He was thinking about it. He was qualified, no question. Smart guy, articulate, not tall but wiry, probably good quickness. I'm figuring point guard.

There's the problem, see. That's why nobody is going to offer me a job in the Obama administration. My basketball skills are
… well, no need to go into detail. But they put me at a disadvantage in certain life situations. Let's say, hypothetically, it's 25 years ago and I'm dating some tall, gorgeous lawyer with buff upper arms. I go to her house to meet the family. Her brother decides he needs to size me up. He invites me outside for some hoops. I'll put it this way: it's going to be a short night.

Basketball holds great importance in the Obama administration. "Duncan likes talking about how pickup basketball reveals character, an article of cultic faith in Obama's inner circle," the New Yorker article tells us. Barack is said to be a decent player — and considering he's president of the United States and has his finger on the button that can turn the earth into a glob of molten glass, I'm sure he's pretty much fantastic. Many of his top advisers in addition to Duncan are also quite good.

This unquestionably has an effect on interpersonal dynamics at the White House. Let's suppose you're in the Oval Office discussing Middle East policy with Barack, Hillary, and Susan Rice, the U.N. ambassador. According to Sports Illustrated, Susan Rice was a point guard at National Cathedral school in D.C. and played at Oxford. You're really getting into it with Susan Rice. Is she awed by your command of geopolitics? No. She's thinking: "I'm 5-foot-3 and stealing the ball from this putz would be like taking candy from a baby." You see what I'm saying. The job thing would never work.

Don't misunderstand. I'm not without athletic ability. I can hold my own in miniature golf. You may scoff, but I assure you the game provides character-building opportunities that are the equal of basketball.

Last summer, for example, I was up north with the family on vacation. We took the kids out for a round of miniature golf — you know, that place on Route 31, with the waterfall. It was me, my wife, and our younger two. Lest you get the idea these kids are pushovers, let me tell you they're varsity athletes. Not, admittedly, in miniature golf. But they have excellent hand-eye coordination.

My son Andrew jumped out to an early lead. I, on the other hand, was scattered. I triple bogeyed the fourth hole. After the first nine Andrew was ahead four strokes. Many would have given up. Not me. I reached within myself, shut out distractions, became comfortable in my own skin. Also, being older and wiser, I didn't address the ball as though I were swinging a weed whacker. I began to catch up. On the 13th I got a hole in one. Andrew began to sweat. By the 18th I was down two. It was one of those tricky holes where the cup is in the caldera of a little volcano. I calculated. I aimed. I tapped the ball in a nuanced and scientific manner. The ball rolled eighteen feet and up the slope, dead center. In? No. I'd applied a couple millinewtons too much force. Michael Jordan used to have that problem playing miniature golf. The ball sailed over the top and came to rest two feet away. Did I choke? Please. A precisely calibrated stroke, up and in — par. Andrew was unnerved. He double bogeyed; we finished in a tie. You didn't hear much about it because of Tom Watson at the British Open that same weekend. But it was sweet.

That's the kind of steadiness and resolve I'd bring to the Obama White House. Picture it: Obama, me, and Rahm. (Rahm was my congressman, did I tell you that? I met him at the church social — really, I did. A regular guy, if you can get past the FU thing.) We're discussing pipelines in Kazakhstan or something, and Barack says, "I gotta clear my head. Let's grab the putters. Who cares if you made par on that volcano? I'm owning you, homeboy."

I'd let him. You don't want the president of the United States sitting down with Vladimir Putin thinking, I just got my butt kicked in miniature golf.

But it's not going to happen. It's basketball or nothing. Fine, Barack. You think you can get past the Tea Party crowd with your jump shot for four years, have at it. However, if you want somebody who can keep his head when the game is on the line, you know who to call.

— Ed Zotti

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