Joe Gibbs, so famously apolitical during his first term as Redskins coach, isn’t shunning the city’s other big sport—politics—in the early days of his second, and so far much less fab, administration.
Gibbs wants you to vote for George W. Bush.
The announcement of Gibbs’ pledge of allegiance to Bush came as a crew of stars from the stock-car universe traveled to swing states to remind NASCAR dads that George W. Bush could use their support. The barnstormers, including Darrell Waltrip, Benny Parsons, and Mark Martin, hit 14 sites across Michigan, Ohio, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania, running over essentially the same track that Bruce Springsteen and dozens of other rock stars on the Anyone But Bush bandwagon lapped earlier this month.
While promoting what was billed as the Bush-Cheney ’04 NASCAR Tour, the Republican Party hailed several NASCAR folks not on the tour who are in its corner. Gibbs, who founded a racing team in 1991, was listed among the endorsers.
Son J.D. Gibbs, who is running the family racing operations while Dad tries to revive the Redskins (and who, according to the Republican campaign, also endorses Bush-Cheney), didn’t return phone messages left at the team’s Charlotte, N.C., headquarters. But Dave Alpern, vice president of marketing and spokesperson for Joe Gibbs Racing, confirms that his bosses wanted people to know he was in Bush’s corner. “Joe signed off on [the endorsement],” Alpern says. “People from the Bush-Cheney campaign talked to J.D. and Joe at the track and asked if it would be OK to use their names saying they support the re-election of the president. J.D. and Joe both said sure, it would be OK.”
The gridiron Gibbs, however, isn’t as public a supporter as the racetrack Gibbs. The coach apparently declined to reveal his presidential endorsement when asked to by the Washington Post. “Whether you’re liberal or conservative, I want to be the Redskins’ coach for everybody,” Gibbs was quoted in Wednesday’s Sports section, by way of not answering a question about his pick for prez.
Gibbs hasn’t yet alerted his employers in Ashburn, Va., about his electoral preference: “We don’t have any information on [Gibbs’ endorsement of Bush] here,” says Karl Swanson, Redskins spokesperson.
The Redskins have a very right-wing past, both in management and in the coaching box. Founder George Preston Marshall’s anti-integrationist bent has been well-documented. Edward Bennett Williams, the megalawyer who ran the football team after Marshall’s death, was a registered Democrat. But while in charge of the Redskins, Williams represented several Watergate conspirators, and his relationship with the right was such that President Gerald Ford asked him to head up the CIA. Williams didn’t bite, so the gig went to…George H.W. Bush. (Conspiracy buffs: Unauthorized bios of the elder Bush say the suggestion that he take over the CIA, an endorsement that was very controversial at the time, came to Ford from the temp president’s chief of staff: Dick Cheney.)
The Redskins’ coach under Williams, George Allen, was a die-hard righty. His good buddy Richard Nixon used to leave the White House to watch the team workout at Redskin Park, and the then-president actually got to diagram a play that Allen used in a 1971 playoff game against the San Francisco 49ers. Nixon’s play, a reverse, lost 13 yards. (Allen’s son, George Jr., is now a Republican senator from Virginia.) Jack Kent Cooke never hid his Republican bent. Daniel Snyder has donated big sums to Republican candidates and causes in the past, including writing a $100,000 check to Bush’s inauguration fund. Swanson said the owner doesn’t plan to endorse anybody in the 2004 presidential race.
And other than all the left-hand turns at the oval workplaces, there’s little about stock-car racing that doesn’t go to the right. President Mike Helton, according to NASCAR spokesperson Ramsey Poston, has declared himself in Bush’s camp this election. Coincidentally or not, when callers are put on hold at NASCAR headquarters in Daytona Beach, Fla., they hear a recording of Bush giving the standard prerace command—“Gentlemen, start your engines!”—at this year’s Daytona 500. (No corresponding Kerry clip is required, because federal election law doesn’t contain an equal time provision for hold recordings.)
But Gibbs, easily the most revered sports figure in this city’s history, didn’t have time for politics when the Redskins were winning all those Super Bowls. Legend holds that when Oliver North, the most politically polarizing person to hit D.C. until W. took office, came to Redskin Park in 1986 as the town was gripped by the Iran-Contra scandal, Gibbs confessed to his uninvited guest that he didn’t know who he was.
Gibbs warmed up to politics, at least the Republican variety, after leaving football. He got involved with Chuck Colson, one of the more well-known felons to come out of the Watergate scandal, who became a right-wing Christian activist while in the pokey, in organizing a boycott of Abercrombie & Fitch. Gibbs was upset about the use of younger models in what he considered to be sexually suggestive positions in company catalogs. In a letter to the clothier’s CEO dated August 2001, Gibbs hailed his own NFL Hall of Fame credentials and boasted of all the powerful people he planned to get involved in the boycott: “I have numerous friends on Capitol Hill and intend to speak to them personally as well as forward a copy this letter. If given the opportunity to speak before our nation’s political leaders, I will make it a personal goal to speak out about your company.”
According to Citizens for Community Values, a conservative Cincinnati-based nonprofit that in fall 2001 reprinted the entire letter in its newsletter, Gibbs also sent the Abercrombie & Fitch missive to such righties as Jack Kemp, Orrin Hatch, former President George H.W. Bush, and President George W. Bush. Gibbs stood shoulder to shoulder with the current president before a national television audience as “The Star-Spangled Banner” was sung before this year’s Daytona 500. Federal Election Commission records indicate that Gibbs’ racing team has donated to the Congressional campaign of Kevin R. Triplett, a GOP candidate from Abingdon, Va.
Gibbs even knows who Oliver North is now. The coach put the colonel, whose convictions for selling arms for hostages were overturned upon further review, on the board of directors of his primary charity, Youth for Tomorrow.
Those on the other side of the aisle wish they had Gibbs on their side.
“Joe Gibbs is a great guy, no matter his politics,” says Don Beyer, the local Volvo dealer and avowed lefty who served as treasurer for Howard Dean’s campaign and serves alongside North on the Youth for Tomorrow board. “He’s culturally in that niche right now, where so many evangelicals identify themselves as Republicans. I hope that changes. I’ve wanted to have a long conversation with him about how his deep faith and his commitment to social action would make him a damn fine Democrat.”
For anybody looking for an alternative to Gibbs’ pick, Beyer has endorsed Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry. —Dave McKenna