Hail To The Stroke

Teddy Roosevelt, U.S. President 1901-1909, in rowing kit at Harvard, c.1877. He called rowing ‘a great and permanent amusement’. Picture: Harvard College Library.

23 April 2019

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch does not acknowledge that sarcasm is the lowest form of wit.

Unless the United States Constitution is scrapped in an angry late-night Tweet in the next 21 months, the winner of the 2020 U.S. presidential election will be inaugurated on 20 January 2021. The present incumbent is seeking to continue to carry the mantle of Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln, and any challenges to him as the Republican candidate are likely to be few and unsuccessful. On the other hand, the Democrats have no shortage of people seeking their party’s nomination; 20 have so far announced their intention to run, and there are around another 10 credible candidates who may throw their baseball cap/stetson/fedora/fascinator/beer can hat into the ring.

Of course, the Democrats have to find a candidate that can match or better Trump’s integrity, humanity, morality, diligence, fidelity, modesty, sensitivity, humour, sophistication, consistency, empathy, literacy, sincerity and intelligence. However, these boring, old-fashioned qualities are increasingly ignored (the New York Times has talked of ‘burying principles so deep that they may never be exhumed’) and so HTBS suggests that the only thing that should be considered is a potential President’s ability to stroke an eight. This, as far as I know, reduces the Democrats to a choice between two candidates. Both are handsome and charismatic young men and are thus, inevitably, likened to Kennedy or Obama.

Robert ‘Beto’ O’Rourke became known outside of his native El Paso, Texas, in 2018 when he ran for the U.S. Senate against the incumbent Republican Ted Cruz. O’Rourke’s campaign drew large crowds, achieved record fundraising and made impressive use of social media. Despite losing the election with 48.3% of the vote to Cruz’s 50.9%, O’Rourke set a record for most votes ever cast for a Democrat in Texas history. On 14 March, he announced his campaign for the Democratic nomination for President.

The 6 foot 4 inch Beto O’Rourke in the stroke seat of the 1994 Columbia Heavyweight Crew. Picture Erin Bertocci/Columbia University Archives.

During his campaign for the Senate, the Columbia Daily Spectator ran an article on O’Rourke’s time at Columbia University, 1991 – 1995, with the headline, “Punk rocker, rower, under-the-radar student: Beto O’Rourke’s time at Columbia”. It began:

U.S. Representative Beto O’Rourke…. was playing bass guitar in campus bars and rowing on the Hudson the last time Texas had a Democratic senator. Now, O’Rourke’s campaign for the 2018 Texas Senate seat—which has drawn national attention because of O’Rourke’s charisma and unapologetically progressive positions—may put a Democrat back in office…

Despite this success, none of O’Rourke’s former college classmates interviewed by Spectator described him as a student who showed any inclination to become a politician.

“There’s a certain group of people that are political in nature, and they just have a hunger for that,” said Jordan Grant….. one of O’Rourke’s teammates on the heavyweight rowing team at the time. “He didn’t strike me as that kind of person—he had real ethics, and he had a real sense of morality, but he was not a political animal so to speak. He was a kid like we were, and he was enjoying his time at a terrific institution.”

Instead of joining protests and writing (opinion pieces), O’Rourke, an English major, rowed his way to captain of the heavyweight crew team, played in various punk rock bands, and passed time at campus haunts ….

Though not driven by politics or academics, O’Rourke’s friends described him as a motivated member of the Columbia community. Though the heavyweight (rowing) team was a small program at the time, it still required significant commitment.

“We would get up at 5:30 a.m., when some of our classmates were just coming home from various raves around the city,” Grant said. “He was definitely committed; crew is a kind of sport where you can’t just decide not to show up and somebody else takes your place.”

According to Grant, the two of them, unlike most of their teammates from elite New England schools, were walk-on athletes who had never rowed before….

O’Rourke (right) and some Columbia crewmates.

In the Winter 2018 -19 edition of Columbia College Today, Boris Kachka wrote:

At Columbia, O’Rourke learned the power of storytelling; he wrote fiction and adored ‘The Odyssey’ (he jokes he named his son Ulysses because he didn’t have the nerve to call him Odysseus). He also learned how to stick to schedules and, most importantly, how to straddle different social worlds. His artist friends knew him as the scruffy guy who got them into trouble for skateboarding through the dorm. But he also became co-captain of the crew team — which meant picking up boatmates in the team van, “hauling people’s asses out of bed,” as he puts it, just as he had for early morning El Paso runs…. “It was surprising to me that someone who was creative and sort of a nonconformist was involved in this super-organized, rigorous discipline of rowing,” says Katherine Raymond, a college girlfriend.

O’Rourke (left, in dress) with his punk band, Foss. This is the cover of their 1993 7-inch EP, “The El Paso Pussycats”. In the band, he played bass; he now wants to play lead.

While becoming the darling of the media in a political campaign is a great thing, the danger is that the candidate’s star shines too bright too soon and the press, television and online commentators lose interest and become infatuated with someone else long before voting day. This may have already happened to O’Rourke, ironically losing out to the other stroke man in the race.

On 17 April, the respected Politico website ran a story by Jack Shafer with the headline “Why the Media Dumped Beto for Mayor Pete: Journalists love a candidate who loves them back”. The ‘Mayor Pete’ in question is Pete Buttigieg (pronounced something like ‘Buddha-judge’). On 14 April, he announced that he was running for the Democratic nomination for President.

Buttigieg (right) and husband, Chasten Glezen (left), at the announcement of his candidacy.

Shafer wrote:

Buttigieg has satisfied the ravenous press corps’ appetite by offering them an entire menu of newish things… to write about. He’s the youngest candidate in the field (37)…., he’s gay and married, he’s an Afghan war veteran, he’s a Rhodes scholar…., he plays a decent piano, he’s a churchgoer…, he’s a polyglot, he’s as earnest as a preacher, he’s an old person’s idea of what a young person should be like, and he’s figured out how to package progressive ideas as moderate.

The Buttigieg boom has also benefited from the stumbles of our previous political shooting star, Beto O’Rourke. Was it only weeks ago that the press began swooning for O’Rourke like a drunken conventioneer, writing about him with the same frequency it does for Buttigieg today…..?

Pete Buttigieg in the stroke seat of a Pembroke eight at the 2005 Christ Church Regatta, an event for Oxford’s college novice crews. Although he has bent his outside arm too soon, stroke Buttigieg seems more thoughtful, measured and in control than those following him. A good sign for the future?

It is Buttigieg’s time after his first degree at Harvard, that as a Rhodes Scholar at Pembroke College, Oxford, studying Politics, Philosophy and Economics, that is of interest to HTBS Types. In 2015, The North American Pembrokian wrote about his time at the college:

As a Pembroke postgraduate (U.S.: graduate student) reading for a second BA, Pete was a member of both the (undergraduates’ Junior Common Room)  – for which he rowed – and the (postgraduates’ Middle Common Room) – for which he played soccer.

Is Buttigieg the anti-Trump that could become the first millennial President? Jack Shafer urges caution:

(After) all these years we’ve failed to learn that media infatuations are rarely a good proxy for voter enthusiasm….. Reporters get stampeded into overcovering a new candidate because they don’t want to miss the boat. Voters, on the other hand, move more cautiously, often taking months or a year to sort out the candidates. Reporters are fickle. Voters are loyal.

Pete Buttigieg as a Navy Reserve intelligence officer in Afghanistan in 2014 where he used his ability in eight languages including Arabic and Farsi. [Ed. note: Buttigieg also speaks Norwegian, as he wanted to read the Norwegian novelist Erlend Loe in the original language.] Lieutenant Buttigieg did not see combat, perhaps the reason that he looks self-conscious posing with his carbine. He came out as gay on his return home. Photo: Pete Buttigieg/Twitter.
As an aside, having either O’Rourke or Buttigieg as President would be an opportunity to add a new verse to ‘Hail to the Chief’, the official entrance theme of American Presidents. The first verse is:

Hail to the Chief we have chosen for the nation,
Hail to the Chief! We salute him, one and all.
Hail to the Chief, as we pledge cooperation
In proud fulfilment of a great, noble call.

These lyrics are by Albert Gamse, but the original words were written by Sir Walter Scott for his ballad “The Lady of the Lake” published in 1810, while the music was composed in 1812, possibly by the English songwriter James Sanderson. Scott’s original “Boat Song” (“Hail to the Chief”) began with a Scottish clan welcoming the arrival by boat of their chieftain, Roderick Dhu:

Hail to the chief, who in triumph advances,
Honour’d and blest be the evergreen pine!
Long may the tree in his banner that glances,
Flourish the shelter and grace of our line.

A later scene from “The Lady of the Lake” where Roderick Dhu sends out a messenger with a burning cross known as the Crann Tara, an ancient way of declaring war.

A President O’Rourke or a President Buttigieg may wish to add the first four lines of Scott’s last verse on the admittedly rare occasions when the Gamse lyrics are used:

Row, vassals, row for the pride of the Highlands!
Stretch to your oars for the evergreen pine!
O, that the rosebud that graces yon islands,
Were wreath’d in a garland around him to twine.

We will have to wait until after 3 November 2020 to see who actually ends up wreath’d in rosebud garlands.


  1. Sarcasm as the lowest form of wit is debatable but brevity is definitely its soul. Stick to rowing, Koch.
    Leave political commentary to those who don’t know what they are writing about, then again ,,,

  2. Tim -this is terrific stuff and good fun besides. In answer to your previous question, I can’t recall meeting Waterhouse but probably did in a press box occasionally. He was certainly a presence. Not to be confused with my ex-Guardian colleague and flat mate Bob Waterhouse, who also has talent aplenty but is not related.


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