When John Kennedy tried to sell the therapeutic virtues of 50-mile hikes
to a sedentary nation, the president's chosen guinea pig was his own well-padded press secretary, Pierre Salinger. A man whose idea of exercise was teeing off on the golf course
with a fat cigar in his mouth, Salinger stoutly resisted JFK's summons to a New Frontier in physical exertion. "I may be plucky," Salinger said, "but I ain't stupid."
Salinger was lucky – he worked for a president who could take no for an answer without working up a sweat.
In the Obama White House, the near-mandatory regimen appears to be egg-white omelets and workouts with the president's personal trainer, Cornell McClellan. The New York Times reported
Monday that Obama has been hectoring aides, including deputy assistant Michael Strautmanis, over missed appointments in the gym that McClellan has set up in the White House complex. After a recent news conference, Obama called out, "Strautmanis, Cornell says that you're not showing up for your workouts."
Without getting too legalistic, presidential comments like these might be construed as creating a hostile work environment for couch potatoes and exercise-phobes. But, of course, this anecdote and others like it were peddled to make the president look a nurturing boss deeply concerned with the physical well-being of his over-taxed staff. As Susan Sher, Michelle Obama's former chief of staff, told the Times about the fitness fervor of the first family, "They know how hard their staffs are working, so they really want to encourage some balance."
Admittedly, most of the balance seems to involve stretching hamstrings while standing on one foot. The Obamas could just as easily try to bring psychological equilibrium to the White House by recommending that staffers take an hour off several times a week to read murder mysteries or to wander across Pennsylvania Avenue to look at the American art in the Renwick Gallery
. But there is something heavy-handed about the Obama mantra that vigorous exercise and an abstemious diet are the only acceptable stress reducers.
Despite the likely White House candidacies of Big Guy Republicans
like Haley Barbour and Newt Gingrich, there is no longer a debate about whether buff is better in a president. Of course, it is. Only in the days before movie newsreels could you have presidents like the 330-pound William Howard Taft or John Adams, who was mockingly called "His Rotundity
." Pretty soon on election night, victorious candidates will start thanking their personal trainers and their nutritionists long before they get around to rumpled figures like campaign managers.
But being a deputy assistant to the president is not a post that requires you to look good on television or waving from the back of a stretch limousine. Top Obama adviser Peter Rouse, who served as interim White House chief of staff, is a political player who revels in operating in the shadows. But, according to the Times, Rouse is McClellan's "crowning achievement" because he lost 20 pounds since the president's personal trainer put him on a diet and exercise program.
The turning point in presidential fitness fanaticism may have come back in 2005 when George W. Bush interviewed federal judge J. Harvie Wilkinson for a vacant seat on the Supreme Court. According to Wilkinson, Bush took his measure by asking two penetrating questions – what was the hardest decision he ever made and how much did he exercise?
Serving on the Supreme Court may be the most sedentary job in the world this side of testing mattresses, but Bush insisted on knowing Wilkinson's workout routine. Wilkinson's answer ("I told him I ran three miles a day") should have trumped bragging about lifting heavy law books, but instead, Bush chided him for rejecting cross-training and chose John Roberts. Many in Washington also suspected that Bush fired economic adviser Larry Lindsey in 2002 as much because of his girth as his honest assessment of the potential cost of the Iraq War.
Part of the liberal critique of Bush's presidency was that he seemed more interested in his workouts than working his way out of Iraq. As Jonathan Chait put it in a 2005 op-ed commentary in the Los Angeles Times, "Bush has an obsession with exercise that borders on the creepy." But the same case can be made against Obama – who seems as judgmental about body mass as a window into the soul.
For those readers who are judging me based on the picture that accompanies this article, I plead guilty. But I refuse to see a connection between my workout routine and my words. I doubt that if played pickup basketball like the president and chose mineral water over martinis, I suddenly would write with rippling adjectives, vigorous verbs and taut pronouns.
So forgive me, if I indulge in a little nostalgia for Bill Clinton, who never pressed White House staffers to do anything more strenuous than join him for a game of hearts. Of course, America had a balanced budget back in the Clinton years. So maybe there is a mysterious connection between bloated budgets and buff presidents.
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