Election of the fittest: McCain, Obama say they're pumped up to do the heavy lifting

Tuesday, September 9, 2008
Barack Obama, Democratic presidential candidate for 2008. (SHNS photo by Janet Mayer / PR Photos)

In this mass-media age, the health and fitness of presidential candidates is often equated with their fitness to lead. But should someone's health, vigor and resting pulse rate be used as a barometer of performance as president? And is it fair to compare the health and wellness of candidates who have a 25-year age gap, as is the case with Barack Obama and John McCain?

Yes, says presidential historian Allan Lichtman, author of "The Keys to the White House" and other political books.

"Sure, it reflects the superficiality of politics, but it also reflects a reality a modern president has to go through," said Lichtman, a professor at American University in Washington. "Health and fitness of a candidate is a legitimate issue. The president is under enormous pressures and tensions."

McCain, who just turned 72, has a history of skin cancer and other ailments, and the injuries he sustained as a prisoner of war in Vietnam have limited his ability to exercise.

Obama, 47, has been depicted as a jock — shooting hoops, doing squats, riding a bike — though his bowling score, 37, was truly atrocious and duly mocked by red and blue bloggers alike.

If, as pundits have long declared, presidential campaigns are glorified beauty contests, Obama would be crowned First Jock. McCain? He's received the backhanded compliment of being in decent shape "for his age."

Projecting an aura of vigor is essential, according to Robert Gilbert, a historian at Northeastern University in Boston and author of a book on Calvin Coolidge's depression.

SH08I031FITPRESIDENTS Sept. 3, 2008 -- John McCain, Republican presidential candidate for 2008. (SHNS photo courtesy PRN / PR Photos)

"Look at [Ronald] Reagan," Gilbert said. "When he had his first debate with [Walter] Mondale (in 1984), he stumbled badly. The Wall Street Journal even ran an editorial questioning senility. But Reagan came back strong in the second debate. But I think everyone knows that during his second term he was not operating at peak capacity."

It's doubtful, presidential scholars opine, that the rotund William Howard Taft (well over 300 pounds) could be elected today. Late-night comedians would have a field day with the fact that he got stuck in the White House bathtub.

By the same token, it would be more difficult for a wheelchair-using Franklin D. Roosevelt or a multiply afflicted John F. Kennedy to get elected. In their epochs, the media conspired to withhold the extent of their infirmaries. It was only recently that details of Reagan's limitations due to Alzheimer's disease during his second term have come to light.

"I don't think everything should be publicized," Gilbert said. "Candidates and presidents have privacy rights like the rest of us."

Yet since the early 1970s, candidates routinely have released their medical records to the press.

In May McCain released 1,173 pages of medical documents, his doctor concluding that he is physically fit for the job. He was said to have a strong heart, but he takes medications for high cholesterol, degenerative arthritis and occasional dizzy spells.

Obama's campaign, a week later, released a one-page letter in which his personal physicians deemed him in "excellent health" with no conditions.

Neither Obama nor the media have made an issue of McCain's age or health, and Obama recently told the Chicago Tribune, "I don't think that's going to be an issue people vote on."

Maybe not, but appearance often is reality in the political arena. Which is why it's smart for McCain's campaign staff to stress the Arizona senator's energy level, said University of California-Davis history professor Robert Huckfeldt. He added that McCain's people often decry how hard it is to keep up with the 72-year-old.

"I don't think it's an issue for most voters. Voters think, as long as you can get out on the stump, you're fine," Huckfeldt said.

Even when candidates are not.

In the 1992 campaign, when former senator Paul Tsongas' bouts with cancer were revealed, the candidate donned a Speedo suit and swam laps for reporters.

Had Tsongas — who died in 1997 — been elected, he would have been battling cancer while in office.

"That's why health is an issue," Lichtman said.

If McCain wins in November, he will be the oldest president elected to a first term. Reagan was 69 in 1980 and, at that time, had no health concerns such as McCain's cancer history.

"Certainly, there are serious questions about McCain's health, and he's got to counter them," Lichtman says. "He's not as robust as Reagan was back then."

Because of McCain's injuries after being shot down over Hanoi in 1967 — both arms fractured, a broken right leg, no cartilage in his knees and a smashed shoulder — he is not able to pose for photo ops at health clubs, as Obama does.

But McCain says he does engage in "light exercise." His aides say he walks and once hiked the Grand Canyon from rim to rim.

Of course, that pales before Obama's fitness regimen. He's said to run three miles daily, work out on light weights at the gym and play pickup basketball, often against players half his age.

Obama's athleticism, however, might backfire. Some have speculated that he might be too fit, too thin, too healthy to relate to an increasingly obese U.S. populace.

The Wall Street Journal recently quoted a voter from Corpus Christi, Texas, as saying she wouldn't vote for Obama because "he needs to put some meat on his bones."

Sam McManis is a reporter at the Sacramento Bee. This article distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.

The most fit presidents

1. Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809): This dude was buff — tall, sinewy, virile. He was an avid walker and horseman on his Monticello estate. He walked until his 83rd birthday.

2. Teddy Roosevelt (1901-1909): He wrestled, boxed, fenced, rock-climbed, engaged in jujitsu, played tennis, rode horseback and hiked. Still, he died at age 60.

3. George W. Bush (2001-present): He mountain-bikes, runs and lifts weights. His resting pulse is 44.

4. Herbert Hoover (1929-1933): He used to have Cabinet members toss a medicine ball back and forth during meetings on the South Lawn. He handled the stress of the Great Depression, living 31 years after leaving office.

5. Jimmy Carter (1977-1981): Before George W., he was the top presidential runner and tennis player. The only mar on his record was when he collapsed during a 10K.

6. John Q. Adams (1825-1829): Most mornings, he'd do his own version of a triathlon (walk several miles, ride horseback, swim in the Potomac River). Someone once stole his pants from the shore, and Mrs. Adams had to go to the White House to retrieve some trousers.

7. Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865): At a wiry 6-foot-4, Lincoln won his county wrestling title in Illinois. Yes, he beat the fabled Jack Armstrong, too. Legend has it that, in his youth, he lifted a box of stones weighing 1,000 pounds.

8. John Adams (1797-1801): He awoke at 5 a.m. each day for a five-mile walk. He used to burn calories by writing standing up at a podium. He was an avid horseman into his 80s.

9. Harry Truman (1945-1953): An avid power walker, Truman would occasionally hold news conferences during his walks, leaving reporters gasping to keep up. He lived to age 88.

10. George Washington (1789-1797): The father of our country got a lot of walking in during his early career as a surveyor. He survived smallpox, dysentery and malaria because of his strong constitution (6-foot-3, 200 pounds). He used to throw a ball around with troops during the war.

The least fit presidents

1. William Howard Taft (1909-1913): He became stuck in the White House bathtub several times. By some accounts, he weighed 370 pounds. He did exercise occasionally — horseback riding. Poor horse.

2. Grover Cleveland (1885-1889 and 1893-1897): A 260-pound smoker, he refused to walk or do any exercise because it increased his appetite. He underwent two operations for cancer of the jaw.

3. Ulysses S. Grant (1869-1877): He smoked and chewed tobacco and died of tongue cancer at age 63. He drank heavily, too.

4. Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-1945): He used a wheelchair because of polio. He also suffered from congestive heart failure and hypertension — not that the American people knew anything about it.

5. Franklin Pierce (1853-1857): Years of heavy drinking resulted in his death from cirrhosis of the liver at age 64.

6. Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921): A major stroke in 1919 left him virtually incapacitated for 17 months. He suffered from hypertension and was reported to have had his first stroke at 39.

7. Calvin Coolidge (1923-1929): He suffered from clinical depression after his son's death in 1924. He slept 14 to 16 hours a day, worked four.

8. Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953-1961): He had a series of heart attacks, tuberculosis, Crohn's disease and malaria. It didn't keep him off the golf course, though.

9. Chester Arthur (1881-1885): A heavy smoker and drinker, he suffered in office from Bright's disease, a fatal kidney ailment. He died a year after leaving office.

10. John F. Kennedy (1961-1963): He suffered from Addison's disease (decreased production of adrenal hormones) and back pain, and took many prescription drugs. Media reports, though, show him sailing and playing touch football.

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