He had just hung up the telephone with the devastated parents before heading in front of the cameras. Unusually emotional, President Barack Obama declared himself “heartbroken” by the brutal murder of an American journalist, James Foley, and vowed to “be relentless” against Islamic radicals threatening to kill another American.
But as soon as the cameras went off, Obama headed to his favourite golf course on Martha’s Vineyard, seemingly able to put the savagery out of his mind. He spent the next four and a half hours on the links even as criticism erupted over what many saw as callous indifference to the slaughter he had just condemned.
Presidents learn to compartmentalise their lives. To make coldhearted decisions and manage the burdens of perhaps the most stressful job on the planet, current and former White House officials said, a president must guard against becoming consumed by emotions. And few presidents have been known more for cool, emotional detachment than Obama.
But if Obama hoped to show America’s enemies that they cannot hijack his schedule, he also showed many of his friends that he disdains the politics of appearance. He long ago stopped worrying about what critics say, according to aides, and after the outcry over last Wednesday’s game, he golfed again Thursday, his eighth outing in 11 days on the island.
It was all the more striking given that Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain cancelled his vacation over the Foley video.
Privately, even Democrats shook their heads at the “judgment error”. “As a general rule, I think that he’s right that you can’t be held hostage to the news cycle,” said Jim Manley, a longtime Democratic strategist. “But in this particular instance, I think a lot of Democrats flinched a little bit.”
Obama is not the first president to get in trouble over golf. On the course one day in 2002, President George W Bush delivered a tough-worded statement denouncing a suicide bombing in Israel and then, barely missing a beat, told reporters, “Now, watch this drive.” Bush admitted the mistake, and in the fall of 2003, with the Iraq War raging, he gave up golf for the remainder of his presidency.
“Sports and leisure activities are a good way for release and clearing of the mind for a lot of us,” White House official Eric Schultz said later, defending Obama’s golf break. “But I am not going to get into the President’s mindset on that.”