Wednesday, November 21, 2007

GAIL COLLINS: Presidential Shopping List


I am making a list called Qualities We Don’t Want in the Next President, based on lessons learned from the Bush administration. The first undesirable attribute was loyalty, in the sense of valuing personal relationships over competence. Really, we need to elect someone who push his/her grandmother under a bus if she screwed up the mission.

Quality to Avoid No. 2: Extreme physical fitness.

Ideally, you do want a president who has enough energy to climb the Capitol steps. Let’s just try to avoid another chief executive who can create utter chaos in the Middle East and still figure that it was a great week if he did 20 miles on his trail bike.

During the 2000 race, the Bush campaign had an afternoon stopover at a college campus in South Carolina. I was sitting outside on a patio, typing, when the candidate himself raced through in the front of a pack of football players. (It was a little like having a cattle drive thunder past your laptop.)

Leading his little herd of hard-core jocks, Bush had the most euphoric expression on his face. I never again saw him look that happy, even when he was inaugurated. This was not a candidate who exercised in order to stay in shape for the presidential race. It was a guy who spent the campaign waiting for an excuse to get back to his real life on the StairMaster.

This year, Fred Thompson is a top contender for the title of Least Likely to Obsess Over His Running Time. But we may not want to go so far as to pick a guy who seems exhausted by a walk to the podium.

Hillary Clinton may be closer to the ideal. “Frankly, I don’t have a lot of details, but I’m sure she tries to exercise,” said a spokesman, with a tinge of defensiveness. Later, he e-mailed that Clinton has a walk “every day when she is home in Chappaqua and whenever she can when she’s on the road.” Add that all up and you get Not Very Often.

We know that Barack Obama asks his schedulers to give him an hour a day in the hotel gym, but we need more information on how he reacts when he doesn’t get it. Disappointed? Relieved? Suicidal?

John Edwards is a runner who never seemed too carried away with it. However, the way Edwards has been changing personalities recently, you never know. He could be demanding that Congress give every American worker a pair of Reeboks before the snow flies.

And then there’s Mitt Romney. I don’t think we have much to worry about from Romney on the excessive-loyalty front. There’s something about him that makes me think he’d throw his best friend overboard if it would win him 10 more votes in New Hampshire. However, he’s physically fit to a troubling degree. Romney has no known vices, except packing the family dog on top of the car during long trips. His wife makes him homemade granola, which he likes to eat with skim milk when feeling particularly indulgent. He and his many sons hold family mini-triathalons every year.

Romney has a campaign ad that shows him running — frequently uphill — through the forest, his sneakers thudding softly on the dirt trail, his breath deep and regular, strands of slightly moist hair falling artfully across his forehead as the announcer says that he has “the energy and experience to turn around Washington.” The implicit message is that Mitt’s exceptional physical prowess will work to our benefit when he becomes president. This is the exact thing we have learned is incorrect. The nation will never, ever have a president in better shape than George W. Bush. And look where that got us.

Even before Bush gave executive jogging a bad name, fitness did not always appeal to the public as much as you’d expect. Back in 1994, Romney made his first run for public office by challenging Ted Kennedy, who at 62 was bulky and moving like a much older man because of that ancient back injury. The Romney campaign ran an ad that showed Kennedy trying to squeeze himself behind a table. Voters were supposed to watch it and think: fat in the budget.

Meanwhile, Romney was bounding up stairs as if the elevator was yet to be invented, chirping his enviable stats (“One-hundred-seventy-six pounds! Almost 6-foot-2!”) at the least provocation. How could such a man not run a lean government operation? The pitch seemed to be working until Kennedy’s ad agency went to Marion, Ind., where Romney’s investment firm, Bain Capital, had acquired a factory that made office supplies, then promptly fired all the workers. (Many were then rehired at lower pay with worse benefits.) “I don’t know Kennedy, but I know Romney. We’ll be in your ads,” said an official from the local paperworkers’ union.

Perhaps this was not fair, but the voters in Massachusetts soon began to look at the spare figure of Mitt Romney and think downsizing.

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