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Relief on Way for Clinton Knees, Capital Commuters : President about to jog around White House, evoking memories of Carter's 'Killer Rabbit,' Nixon's bowling ball.

April 15, 1993|PAUL HOUSTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Bill Clinton, the first President to tie up traffic by jogging on the streets of the capital, soon will be switching to a quarter-mile track dug into the White House grounds.

The track, privately financed by a company donating $10,000 worth of materials and by others kicking in $20,000 for labor, will protect Clinton's knees from hard pounding on pavement and sidewalks and give him better security--but it also will be a blessing to Washington motorists delayed by presidential jogging.

His jogging in downtown Washington has created early morning traffic jams and lunchtime spectacles. One day, he attracted startled stares, tourists' cameras and a straggly entourage of spur-of-the-moment running partners as he jogged along monument grounds, with Secret Service all-terrain vehicles zooming down sidewalks to keep up.

Presidents from Herbert Hoover on have turned to exercise for psychic as well as physical relief from the rigors of decision making. But some also have seemed well aware of political dividends.

"One reason that John Kennedy emphasized exercise was to divert attention from his bad health," says presidential historian Michael Beschloss. "With the pictures of him sailing and swimming, no one believed he was suffering the way he was from back problems and Addison's disease."

Clinton benefits from displaying Kennedyesque vigor with his almost daily jogs through the streets and parks of Washington. His aides insist he is not seeking political profit--in fact, he only grudgingly tolerates having the press along on his three-mile runs. Still, aides acknowledge the dividends. "It only reinforces that image of youthfulness and energy and change," one says.

But presidential sportiveness can be a mixed blessing.

After Dwight D. Eisenhower suffered a stroke, heart attack and ileitis in less than three years, he allayed concerns about his health by taking to the golf course and the putting green he had installed on the White House lawn.

On the other hand, in the late 1950s, Ike's golfing became a great political liability, suggesting that the President was unduly complacent about the surge of the Soviet Union.

"It was a metaphor of a President not on top of the job," Beschloss says.

For Jimmy Carter, who had a swimming pool built outside the White House, recreation was sometimes a public relations nightmare. When aides claimed that a rabbit had attacked his canoe on a fishing trip, prompting Carter to splash water with an oar to scare it off, cartoonists went wild over the "Killer Rabbit" and "Banzai Bunny." Later, Carter sent shivers around the world when he nearly collapsed from fatigue while running in a race.

Richard Nixon actively sought press coverage of his bowling, thinking it would boost his stock with hard-hat Democrats. Nixon's lack of golfing and bowling prowess--he once dropped a bowling ball on his wife's foot--inspired a joke: "I scored 128 today," Nixon supposedly told Henry A. Kissinger, his national security adviser. "Your golf game is getting better," Kissinger said. Nixon replied, "I was bowling, Henry."

Not many presidents before Hoover exercised because it was long considered dangerous for people over 40.

Hoover tossed around a heavy medicine ball with members of his Cabinet, who of course were called the Medicine Ball Cabinet.

Franklin D. Roosevelt swam in an indoor pool built for him at the White House as therapy for his infantile paralysis.

Harry S. Truman took brisk walks and pumped a rowing machine.

Eisenhower fished and played golf.

Kennedy played touch football in addition to swimming and sailing.

Lyndon B. Johnson rode horses.

Nixon, besides installing a bowling alley in the White House, restored a billiards room that had been banished by the puritanical Rutherford B. Hayes.

Gerald R. Ford swam, skied and golfed.

Carter played softball in addition to his other activities.

Ronald Reagan rode, chopped wood and lifted weights.

George Bush ran, golfed, boated, hunted, played tennis and threw horseshoes.

Besides running, Clinton golfs and uses body-building machines.

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