There's power and then there's power.
The Congressional Country Club in Bethesda has played host to both. From Arnold Palmer to Jack Nicklaus to Tiger Woods. From Woodrow Wilson to Tip O'Neill to Bill Clinton.
The Congressional has been its own seat of power since its formal opening on May 23, 1924. The idea for the course was hatched by two congressmen from Indiana -- O.R. Luhring and Oscar Bland -- who envisioned an oasis where "officials and professional and business men could get together and, without restricting influences, express the views they entertained," according to the club's official history.
But those who follow politics and golf dismiss the myth that deals are cut during rounds of golf, or rounds of drinks in the clubhouse.
"I never heard anything on the golf course that I'd write about later," says Walter Mears, longtime political writer for Associated Press and golfer.
The Congressional's strength and history are rooted in political Washington. Its first president was Herbert Hoover. Life membership was awarded to Wilson, Warren Harding and William Howard Taft. Founding memberships were held by men named Astor, Rockefeller, DuPont, Hearst.
A prospectus for life members (joining fee: $1,000) breathlessly talked of "destiny" and "high purpose" and the chance for the average rich person to rub shoulders with the mighty:
"Who can estimate the value of such intercourse of freedom the official or the Member of Congress, brain cleared by the bracing air, and exhilarated by the play in which he is engaged, finds a new and more adequate conception of his problems of government; and from his contacts with minds which know the nation's needs, develops more surely the solutions essential for America's well being.
"The citizen, perhaps unconscious of the help he is giving his country, learns of the difficulties besetting the service of the president, the department heads and Congress, and obtains a larger view of what government is and what government really means."
Well, perhaps. But the captains of government and industry quickly proved they knew little about golf construction, clubhouses and access roads.
The first hurdle was distance. Only a fool would believe the club literature that claimed the Congressional was but a 30-minute drive from downtown Washington, for access roads were practically nonexistent.
Col. Brooke Lee, Maryland's comptroller and a member of the club's board of governors, promised to use his muscle to get roads built, but the formal dedication "became the scene of the worst traffic jam since the burial of the Unknown Soldier. Many of those who started for the club never got there, and most of those who reached it had great difficulty in getting away," the Washington Post reported.
After a dinner of steak and french fries, it took President Coolidge and his wife 45 minutes to travel the first two miles back to the White House, the newspaper reported.
So much for clout, 1920s-style.
Members squabbled over enforcing Prohibition, locker assignments and "filth within the halls, locker rooms, swimming pools" the club history noted.
And the promise of 36 holes in the 1922 prospectus wasn't realized until 1979.
Despite its high-powered membership, the Congressional was unable to avoid the problems that shook the rest of the country: the Depression, followed by foreclosure.
A reorganized Congressional continued, only to be swept up by World War II and gas rationing, which made the remote club even more inaccessible and pushed it closer to bankruptcy.
Once again, Congressional's ties to official Washington proved helpful. The club was leased by the government for $4,000 a month and became Area F for the Office of Strategic Service spies-in-training program.
After V-J Day, the military gave the club an honorable discharge and restored it to its pre-war condition. The Congressional reopened on April 21, 1946, with a welcome-home buffet for its members.
President Eisenhower, who left little spike holes in the Oval Office floor, gave golf a boost in the 1950s.
"The golden age of golf and politics was back before tennis and jogging were popular and people began drinking sparkling water," Mears said. "Eisenhower was Golfer-in-Chief then."
But even Eisenhower avoided mixing politics and golf, says James Leyerzapf, archivist at the Eisenhower Center in Abilene, Kan.
"He had the incredible ability to focus. So when he went to the golf course, it was to relax and leave the pressures of office behind," Leyerzapf says. "He didn't go golfing with particular people and use it for political purposes. It was an escape valve."
Democratic presidents -- Kennedy, Johnson and Carter -- weren't serious golfers, although Kennedy once had an 8-handicap. Republicans -- Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, a Congressional member, and Bush -- were. And former Vice President Dan Quayle is so serious, he occasionally plays on the Celebrity Golf Association tour.
Every so often, the power golfers run afoul of public opinion: former Congressman Dan Rostenkowski and his frequent expenses-paid junkets; Quayle traveling to a golf date on Air Force Two; Clinton aide David Watkins who was forced to resign after using a military helicopter to drop in on a golf course in Frederick County.
Indeed, H.L. Mencken warned of mixing golf and politics: "No man guilty of golf should be eligible for any office of trust or profit under the Constitution, and the families of the breed should be shipped to the white slave corrals of the Argentine."
But Mears says golfing is a point of contact, "for the presumed great and near great, but when you're golfing, you lose focus of what you do and get focused on what you're doing.
"If we're going to talk politics, we'll do it with our shirts and ties on."
Pub Date: 6/08/97