Periodically, a fever rages in the political class in Washington. Remember term limits? The fever raging among them now is that they must be addicted to physical fitness in order to qualify for high office.
But history, Arnold Schwarzenegger notwithstanding, does not suggest that people in the peak of physical fitness are any more suited to govern than the sedentary.
Indeed, as in most things, history’s lessons are contradictory. Winston Churchill started drinking at breakfast, Franklin D. Roosevelt was disabled, and William Howard Taft challenged his chefs and his tailors. Adolf Hitler was lazy, took no exercise, and was a vegetarian. In contrast, Saddam Hussein insisted on fitness and swam regularly in the Tigris with his coterie of murderers.
At one time, most American politicians were probably physically fit: People who have to travel on horseback end up that way. Only urban slugs, like Benjamin Franklin, got around by carriage and avoided the involuntary conditioning.
The horseback-riding factor is an important one. People who ride know that they feel much better after an hour on a horse than if they worked out an hour in the gym. Ronald Reagan rode throughout his presidency on horses provided by the U.S. Park Service. He said: “There is nothing better for the inside of a man than the outside of a horse.”
Given Reagan’s mythical status in Republican circles, it is astounding that the entire GOP has not saddled up. Can’t you see Republican members of Congress galloping up Capitol Hill at the mention of socialized medicine, amnesty for illegal aliens, or gun registration? Imagine Mitch McConnell and John Boehner shouting, “Tally ho”?
If you want a good example of the electability of the fit, it is George W. Bush. The president used to run on a treadmill, but now he takes half-day bike-riding excursions at the U.S. Secret Service training facility in Beltsville, Md. The concept of the leader of the free world hurtling around on a bike is most disconcerting.
Gerald Ford, always fitness-conscious, preferred the anonymity of swimming in the White House pool. Bill Clinton liked the idea of exercising, or he liked us to think he liked the idea of exercising. But his jogging was an embarrassment. Dwight Eisenhower had enough of that in the military, and preferred to putt on the South Lawn of the White House. There he engaged in a long war against the squirrels that stole his golf balls. Ike, I am told, deported them to Sylvan Theater on the Mall.
Of course, the man who had it both ways was Teddy Roosevelt. He loved sports of all kinds, but he was deliciously paunchy. Vigorous activities—of the athletic and gastronomic kind–were a way of life for him.
At the White House these days, the gym is a very active place. After a 16-hour day, I am told, a staffer was hoping that somebody would buy her a drink. No such luck. Her superior told her that she would have more energy if she went to the gym.
When Karl Marx was writing his tracts in the Reading Room of the British Museum, he was known for his flatulence and for always complaining about his poor health. And when Churchill was told about this, he declared that history was made by men who felt unwell.
Nevertheless, Arnold Schwarzenegger is something to behold: fit, trim and charismatic. Never mind that Clive James, the Australian-born writer, said Schwarzenegger looked like a brown condom filled with walnuts.