Phenomenon July/August 2005

Marathon Men

President George W. Bush has done a lot to change the face of American politics. But has he changed its body type, too?

Bush is a self-professed fitness freak, always busy clearing brush at his Crawford ranch or sprinting on the White House treadmill. He appears to have spawned a new generation of politically minded endorphin junkies eager to push their physical limits as strenuously as they pursue their political careers—many of them, in fact, with an eye to replacing Bush.

Before he became president, Bush was noted for marathon running, which has quietly become the activity of choice for White House aspirants. Arkansas's Governor Mike Huckabee, a Republican, celebrated his recent loss of 110 pounds by competing in a March race in Little Rock, where he teamed up with an unlikely running mate: Iowa's Governor Tom Vilsack, a Democrat. Both men won medals for their performance and participation, but the real payoff, politically speaking, came a day later, when they appeared together on the Today show—the sort of media exposure that presidential hopefuls crave.

Huckabee and Vilsack hardly lead the pack. Another ambitious Democratic governor, Rod Blagojevich, of Illinois, who finished a 1984 marathon in under three hours, ran a more leisurely eleven-mile leg of an eighty-mile relay race in April. Minnesota's Governor Tim Pawlenty, a Republican, gave new meaning to the phrase "marathon campaign swing" by running two marathons last fall: the first in the Twin Cities in October, the second in New York City a month later.

Senators with presidential ambitions are hitting the trail too. The Indiana Democrat Evan Bayh, among the most talked-about potential nominees for 2008, competed in California's Big Sur Marathon this year. And can it be mere coincidence that the early Republican favorite, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, of Tennessee, is a veteran marathoner? His track record includes four Marine Corps Marathons and two New York City Marathons. Even John Kerry understands which way the wind is blowing. Kerry famously windsurfed during last year's presidential campaign, and was roundly mocked; the 2008 hopeful has claimed that he ran the Boston Marathon in the late 1970s, according to The Boston Globe. But as with other episodes in the senator's past, the specifics here are a little murky; no official record of his participation exists.

For politicians, pounding the pavement seems to carry a dual benefit. Even as it relieves stress for these classic Type A personalities, it projects an appealing vitality and evokes the improvement-minded everyman—an image that connects with voters in a way that windsurfing or snowboarding might not.

Running isn't the only way to do this, of course. South Carolina's Governor Mark Sanford biked 200 miles across the Palmetto State in 2004. And the ne plus ultra of jockish politicians must surely be the former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson, who has completed the Hawaii Ironman Triathlon (2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, and a marathon) and climbed Mount Everest. Take that, W! Johnson, too, views himself as a potential GOP candidate for president; and he insists that although the political fitness craze is just "smoke and mirrors" to some, he was athletically inclined long before winning office, in 1994.

But as with everything in politics, those who stray too far from tradition do so at their peril. Kerry's enthusiasm for adventure sports may have been considered curious, but the former West Virginia governor Bob Wise, a fellow Democrat, can lay claim to the most unusual athletic taste among chief executives. Wise, who holds a black belt in tae kwon do, is far better known for his clog dancing—a pursuit he once called "exhilarating, exhausting, and the best aerobic exercise around." Known as the "clogging congressman" during his time in the House of Representatives, Wise preferred clogging to riding in a car or on a float during parades.

Aerobic benefits aside, clogging has not achieved the marathon's bipartisan support. Perhaps that's because Wise, unlike Bush, did not win re-election. Or perhaps it's because, practicing his favorite exercise while campaigning for John Kerry last year in Wheeling, West Virginia, he blew out a knee.

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