- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 27, 2002

For reasons of national security or executive privilege, perhaps the athletic prowess of U.S. presidents has traditionally been shrouded in secrecy. Bill Clinton liked to play golf, but does anyone know what his real handicap was, minus the mulligans? Jimmy Carter frequented the White House tennis courts, but did anybody ever ascertain that he had a backhand? And what about John F. Kennedy? We always heard about the Kennedys and touch football, but we never had our most important question answered: Could Jack throw deep?
I mention this because the Leader of the Free World is on the cover of, of all things, Runner's World this week. What's more, George W. Bush is being proclaimed "our fastest president" faster than Millard Fillmore, faster than Chester A. Arthur, faster than the whole bunch. The magazine doesn't exactly have times for Fillmore and Arthur, but it does have one for Bush, who competed in the President's Fitness Challenge in late June at Fort McNair. And what did Our Prez run the three-mile course in? Twenty minutes, 29 seconds.
That's pretty darned good for a 55-year-old (he's since turned 56), who, let's face it, has a lot of other things on his mind. In fact, it was good enough to place him 26th in a field of 400, good enough to put him in the top 3 percent of all three-mile race finishers of any age in the U.S. Heck, I ran a couple three-milers years ago, when I was in my early 30s, and the best I could do was 20:37. That's right, I ran eight seconds slower than a President more than 20 years older than me. Not that there's anything wrong with that
Bush is to be admired for having the guts to, well, put up a number 20:29. He could have kept his perspiring private, as other Chief Executives have done. He could have had his spokespeople provide nebulous information like, "President Bush runs at a comfortable pace, somewhere between Congressman Jim Ryun and a box turtle." He could have, but he didn't. How's that for an open administration?
After all, these public displays of athleticism can be dicey. Jimmy Carter, you may recall, entered a 10K at Catoctin Mountain, Maryland, in 1979 and collapsed halfway through not exactly a boon to his re-election hopes. Then there was Gerald Ford, who could be dangerous on the golf course with a driver in his hands. "I know my game is getting better," he once joked, "because I'm hitting fewer spectators."
Huntin' and fishin' is another matter. Some of our Presidents have been accomplished outdoorsmen. Grover Cleveland caught 57 bass one morning, and Theodore Roosevelt killed more than 100 wild ducks in a single day's hunt. But none of our nation's leaders has been any threat to, say, dunk a basketball. The only number William Howard Taft ever put up was 340 his approximate weight when he left the White House (and an amazing feat in the Pre-Twinkies Era).
(Bill Bradley and Jack Kemp, now they would have been different. Bradley once scored 58 points in an NCAA tournament game, and Kemp passed for 21,218 yards as a pro quarterback numbers that are more impressive, even, than 20:29. But they never quite made it to Pennsylvania Avenue, did they?)
But now we have Dubya. In a post-race interview with Runner's World, he all but set himself up as the Exercise President. Running, he told the magazine, had helped him give up drinking and smoking and enabled him to deal with the "enormous stress" that followed September 11. "It's interesting," he said, "that my times have become faster [since] the war began. They were pretty fast all along, but since the war began, I have been running with a little more intensity. For me, the psychological benefit is enormous."
He also talked about his daily regimen three miles a day, hard, six days a week, "on a tough course" and his impatience with people who say they're too busy to jog around the block. "They don't have their priorities straight," he said. "These are the same people who say they don't have enough time for their families. If the President of the United States can make time, they can make time. One of my jobs as President is to set examples. I have the opportunity to send the message to the American people that I'm serious about exercising and you should be, too."
With waistlines constantly expanding at great risk to America's health it's a battle worth fighting. But enough of that, what do you say we take a crack at Bush's 20:29? It may not be as momentous a number in sports history as 56 (the length of Joe DiMaggio's hitting streak) or 17-0 (the Dolphins' record in '72), but no less an authority than Frank Shorter pronounced himself "astounded the president can run that fast."
Ready? Set? Go.

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