Jogging with Clinton is no walk

July 26, 1993|By Richard L. Berke | Richard L. Berke,New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- Rep. Bob Filner stopped jogging about four years ago because of a bad back. But when word came that President Clinton planned to spend the night in San Diego, the freshman lawmaker didn't think twice about inviting himself along for an early morning jaunt on Coronado beach.

Not timid about seizing a political opportunity, Mr. Filner, 50, said: "It's a status thing. I thought there'd be some interesting pictures taken that I could use to talk about in a fun way with my constituents."

Little did the California Democrat know that Mr. Clinton, whom he thought "looked like a big lug," would outpace and outlast him. The president was unusually speedy that day because he did not want to be shown up by a group of Navy Seals who had joined them. So an out-of-breath and out-of-shape Mr. Filner dropped out after the first of four miles. The only pictures his constituents saw were cartoons in the local paper poking fun at his athletic prowess.

Politicians like Mr. Filner may never exercise, but they can't seem to resist trying to jog with the president.

Some politicians are seeking simply to borrow some presidential prestige, others come to build good will with the president or to lobby him on particular issues. Most will say, of course, that they simply want to get in shape.

"Jogging with the president," said Steve Rabinowitz, a White House aide, "is bigger than an audience in the Oval."

But like Mr. Filner, many would-be runners underestimate the president's endurance and speed (he usually runs about three eight-minute miles). The White House now provides a "straggler van" to pick up people who conk out. And aides try to warn prospective runners that the president is no slug.

Judy Collins, the singer and political enthusiast, spent most of her time in the straggler van. Richard Riordan, the new mayor of Los Angeles, also ended up in it, emerging only when he spotted photographers. (His photo with the president was played prominently in the Los Angeles Times the next morning.)

So did Rep. Cynthia McKinney of Georgia, who had not exercised in years. She prepared for her jog by buying a running outfit and doing some sit-ups the night before.

"I thought he'd chug along like a caboose," she said. "I thought it was an opportunity to see the president laid back and kicking back. But he was kicking up dust, and leaving me in the wind."

Ms. McKinney, a freshman Democrat, said she was near collapse when the van picked her up and took her to the end point. That way, she still got what she came for: her picture with Mr. Clinton.

The politics of exercise is nothing new.

President Lyndon B. Johnson demanded that politicians and aides swim with him in the raw. President Richard M. Nixon was not the sporting type, though he did bowl. President Gerald R. Ford liked to take people golfing and skiing. President Jimmy Carter was so into tennis (or into micromanaging) that he personally controlled who played on the White House courts. President George Bush was better known for his horseshoe game than running.

But for the 1993 political set, jogging at 7 a.m. with the president is the most fashionable. As often as five days a week, Mr. Clinton can be seen wearing a different baseball cap every day as he tries new routes through the streets of Washington, or whatever city he is visiting.

Not one who likes to run around in circles, the president rarely uses the $30,000 jogging track built for him on the South Lawn with private donations.

Marcia Hale, the White House scheduler, said she kept a list of politicians who ask to jog or people the president wants to join him. Sometimes, she said, the congressional liaison office comes up with names of lawmakers who might like to be asked to jog. "He usually brings them back for a tour of the Oval Office before they leave," she said.

Since Mr. Clinton takes his jogging seriously -- he once called it XTC "my thinking time" -- it is not until he is back in the Oval Office that he converses much with his running mates.

On the eve of the last budget vote in the Senate, Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, who was wavering, said he and the president, both in their shorts, "talked a great deal after the run about policy, about trade, about Vietnam."

The politics of exercise is, of course, a two-way street. Mr. Clinton knows the importance of building relationships (and winning votes) in informal settings. Who knows why Mr. Kerrey, who was wearing a "Hillary Knows Best" T-shirt, ended up voting with Mr. Clinton on the budget? Did they bond on the track?

While Mr. Clinton runs to burn off calories, the sport he really seems to enjoy is golf. So securing a golf invitation with the president -- and as many as six hours of his time -- is more difficult. He tries to play once a week, and his partners say Mr. Clinton is very competitive, always keeping careful score.

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