- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 5, 2004

After a long absence, the bicycle has pedaled its way back into American politics.

Perhaps the zenith of the bike was in the late ‘60s when two Southern politicians, at various times candidates for president, seized on it as metaphor.

Alabama Gov. George Wallace used to rant about “pointy-headed liberals in Washington who couldn’t park a bicycle straight.” It made no sense, but his followers seemed to enjoy it.

To the delight of both news photographers and himself, Lester Maddox used to ride his bicycle backward around the parking lot of his Atlanta fried-chicken stand. He never became president but did become governor of Georgia.

A few weeks ago, President Bush fell off his mountain bike at his Texas ranch, bringing the two-wheeler back from political obscurity.

The reaction of Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, his Democratic opponent and, it turns out, a fellow bike rider, was typical of most of us: “I hope he’s OK. I didn’t know the president rode a bike.” Neither did the rest of us, but this is, after all, a secretive White House.

The president was OK except for scrapes and cuts on his face, hand and knees. The face and hand marks were clearly visible when he left Texas, but barely so when he addressed the Army War College a few nights later. Whatever you think of the rest of the Bush operation, the makeup squad is clearly up to the job.

It did not take the bike incident long to insinuate itself into politics.

To the Bush aides, the president just can’t simply fall off his bicycle and be done with it; there has to be an element of heroism. Press aide Trent Duffy noted the fall came at mile 16 of a 17-mile ride and that after some quick medical attention from his personal physician, the president declined the Secret Service’s offer of a ride and pedaled the remaining mile.

And the fall? Just some good, hard ridin’ in muddy conditions. “You know this president,” Mr. Duffy said. “He likes to go all-out. Suffice it to say he wasn’t whistling show tunes.” (Surely Mr. Duffy wasn’t saying the president can’t ride and whistle simultaneously. But then Mr. Duffy is a youngster and perhaps doesn’t remember the unfair canard of President Ford: that he couldn’t walk and chew gum at the same time.)

No, contrary to what Mr. Duffy says, the press doesn’t really know this president because Mr. Bush rarely talks to reporters and his staff is at pains to keep them at a distance, which is where the pool reporter was on Memorial Day weekend when Mr. Bush went mountain biking at a Secret Service course outside Washington. The reporter noted he couldn’t see much but added snidely that the president’s party was closely followed by a van and an ambulance.

After Mr. Kerry’s initial solicitude, he recovered his political bearings and allegedly offered an explanation of his own for the president’s tumble: “Did the training wheels fall off?”

That prompted a mass e-mailing from the Republican National Committee denouncing the senator as cold and uncaring. (Mr. Kerry was polite compared to the late-night crowd. Jay Leno cracked that Mr. Bush had worn the helmet that protected him when he fell off a couch after choking on a pretzel.)

And the press was quick to report Mr. Kerry himself had fallen off his bike earlier that month during a ride in Concord, Mass. And it also delved into the details readers need to know. The New York Times reports the wealthy Mr. Bush rides a Trek Fuel 90 that retails for $1,500-plus and the even wealthier Mr. Kerry a custom Ottrott that retails for $8,000-plus. These are not your grandfather’s Schwinns.

Perhaps it’s just as well that comparative bicycle ability is now an issue in the presidential campaign, because if the price of gas and the federal deficit keep rising, the winner will be riding one in the Inaugural parade.

Dale McFeatters is a columnist for Scripps Howard News Service.

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