You read that correctly, we at The Stain now do book reviews. The only caveat is that they have to be about sports in some way shape or form.
So let’s get into it. Power Players examines how sports and politics have intertwined when it comes to the American Presidency. Chris Cillizza is a political commentator, probably best known for his time at CNN. His penchant for pissing people on both sides of the political aisle off, and leaning into his boldest and most absurdist political takes with full committment should make this book, at the very least, interesting.
A couple of things gave me pause before I started reading. First, most books come rife with testimonials prominently available, either on the cover or first pages. The cover testimonial, “… a fun read for politicos and sports fans alike,” comes from none other than Cillizza’s former CNN colleague, Jake Tapper. Look, if you have to rely on a former work buddy for your cover kudos, is that really a good sign? And was calling the book “a fun read” really the best you could solicit? It sounds a lot like something you might say about the shower while you were leaving a hotel review on Yelp. “Yeah, it got me clean enough but the water never quite got as hot as I wanted, and shower head made this strange high-pitched whirring noise on the massage setting. But the water pressure was good!”
Second, there has been no shortage of books authored by those in the journalistic world in the wake of the Trump presidency. Not that I can blame anyone for chasing a buck, but if that’s your primary motivation in the endeavor, how much effort is really going into it? In fact, Cillizza himself sort of notes this exact thing in the Jimmy Carter chapter, saying, “Nowadays, of course, it’s a rite of passage. Leave the White House, srite a dishy book about its inner workings – with you as the hero – and then cash in.” In fairness, he’s talking about aides in that reference but it certainly applies to journalists as well.
But anyway, all that stuff would just be judging the book by something other than its contents.
Let’s start with the criticisms.
From the get go, Power Players reads a little bit like a text book. For something that is supposed to be a fun read, there are somewhat substantial stretches where you feel like you might have to do a homework assignment once you’re done with the chapter. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, and if you’re the type to prioritize getting educated rather than entertained, it might even be a selling point for you. I, on the other hand, had hoped for a little more of the fun I was promised by Jake Tapper.
Additionally, Cillizza makes the somewhat understandable choice to go chronologically with his profiled presidents, starting with Eisenhower and ending with Biden. However, while sticking to that timeline, Cillizza jumps around quite a bit with tidbits and “fun facts” about other presidents outside of the one he’s talking about in a particular chapter. It seems unnecessary, seeing as there’s an upcoming chapter about the other dude, and takes away from the book’s flow.
The choice to start with Eisenhower was also a strange one to me. Didn’t sports exist before 1953? I mean, Eisenhower was a war hero and viewed universally in a positive light, so it makes sense on that level. And while I’m not sure anyone really cares about the tiddlywinks exploits of Millard Fillmore, surely there was a president of some consequence before Dwight that played… I don’t know, anything? Lacrosse is reported to be the oldest sport in America, having been played since the 1600s according to Wikipedia. Are you telling me that no president between 1776 and 1953 was a fan?
Finally, and this ties in to how few presidents ultimately were featured in this book, but due to the paucity of material, in order to fill a chapter, Cillizza tends to go on too long with certain stories. There’s only so hard that you need to drive the point of home that Eisenhower was mad about golf. Or that Jimmy Carter allegedly insisted on approving use of the White House tennis court himself, and how that shaped public perception of him. Meanwhile, there’s plenty of plenty of opportunities for anecdote that left me wanting. Gerald Ford was a remarkable athlete with a storied history of achievement. Surely there were a few more yarns that could have been woven into his chapter, rather than repeating too often that his critics painted him as a numbskull who took too many blows to the head in football. And of course, Trump. It’s understandable and even entertaining that Cillizza would work in some of Trump’s more absurd assertions of his own prowess, and give us the unnecessary reminder of how avid a golfer he was. But I feel there were some missed opportunities, both in the story of his USFL failures / inability to secure an NFL franchise, and his involvement in pro wrestling and Wrestlemania. Both items are touched upon but they are legitimately interesting stories and I’d love to have read more than a couple of pages on each. And the note about Trump eschewing exercise due to his belief that the human body carried a finite amount of energy like a battery, though well-known, is nevertheless always a hilarious memory.
Now, if it sounds like I’m beating up on the book a little bit… it’s because I am. But it’s certainly not all bad. There’s plenty of good stuff, and I don’t regret reading it. I learned some pretty interesting stuff – stuff I wouldn’t have expected to be true. Stuff like Richard Nixon was good friends with Jackie Robinson. Stuff like George W. Bush actually warmed up for his iconic first pitch at Yankee Stadium, because he didn’t want a repeat of a poorly thrown first pitch like the one nobody remembers from earlier that season. And there’s other good stuff like this in there, that I won’t bullet for you here as this isn’t supposed to be some kind of spoiler alert.
I’m just trying to help you make a decision on whether or not you should spend your money on this book.
The Verdict: So, should you? Personally, I wouldn’t. It’s $30. But if this subject matter is your thing, I wouldn’t blame you if you did. What do book reviews use these days, a four star system? If so, I’d give it probably 2.5 stars out of four. While there are certainly fun and educational parts of the book, it does seem like the research done, if any, was mostly surface level stuff you could find just about anywhere online. It doesn’t seem like any interviews were original – and there’s something that feels a little wrong about using mostly the investigative toil of others to publish something. It also seems like there was indeed an element of trying to capitalize and squeeze one last dime out of Donald Trump’s clown car of a presidency. If I’m going to cough up $30, I just want a little more for my money, ya know?