There's a good reason why our leaders don't jog

Brian Viner
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The Independent Online

An item on Tuesday's Nine O'Clock News about the American presidential campaign filled me with a feeling of déjà vu, and not for the first time. We saw George Bush Jnr on the eve of the Republican Party Convention, enthusiastically jogging. He's the latest in a long line of presidents and would-be presidents to wave their man-of-the-people credentials in this strange manner.

An item on Tuesday's Nine O'Clock News about the American presidential campaign filled me with a feeling of déjà vu, and not for the first time. We saw George Bush Jnr on the eve of the Republican Party Convention, enthusiastically jogging. He's the latest in a long line of presidents and would-be presidents to wave their man-of-the-people credentials in this strange manner.

But there is more to it than that. Jogging has come to symbolise an American politician's resolve. His jaw is pugnaciously set and his eyes are focused on the bumpy road ahead. You can almost hear the image-consultants purring. At least until their man collapses into the arms of his secret servicemen, like Jimmy Carter. For Carter, jogging ended up as a potent symbol of his knackered presidency.

Notwithstanding the risks, though, American politicians continue to jog. Of recent presidents, Ronald Reagan alone did not indulge - the only bit of him that needed frequent jogging was his memory. By contrast, Bill Clinton, George Bush Snr and Carter were big on jogging, transparently trying to show the American people that they were fit in body as well as mind. However, Clinton seems to have hung up his track shoes, perhaps advised that the sight of him red-faced and panting just has too many unpleasant connotations.

Instead he concentrates on golf, the other leisure pursuit traditionally favoured in the Oval Office. Indeed, of all presidents stretching back to Eisenhower, the only non-golfer was Carter, the odd man out in all sorts of ways. When Carter was inaugurated, he eschewed the presidential limousine and walked down Pennsylvania Avenue, holding hands with his wife Rosalyn.

He wanted to present a folksy image but soon found out that Americans didn't like their president being too folksy. So he stopped wearing cardigans and climbed back into a suit.

He might have been better counselled to take up golf, which is not too élitist for the voters but just élitist enough. Except that he would doubtless have been televised thrashing around in a bunker.

For the standard of presidential golf has neatly summed up the nature of successive presidencies. Kennedy had an excellent swing but did not always make solid contact. Bush had an unfortunate tendency to slice the ball into spectators. Nixon cheated. He even bequeathed some choice Watergate-inspired slang to the game. A "Nixon" is a terrible lie.

Here in Britain, where golf clubs are still widely considered to be bastions of snobbery, sexism and privilege, Prime Ministers sensibly tend not to indulge. Harold Wilson played but affected plebeian habits to make up for it, wearing macs and sucking a pipe (for smoking, he preferred cigars). John Major liked to be photographed wielding a cricket bat and Tony Blair demonstrates his skills with a football at every available opportunity.

Mr Blair picks his leisure activities carefully. At a summit of European leaders in Amsterdam three years ago, he even followed Norman Tebbit's advice and got on his bike, in the certain knowledge that he would hammer Jean-Luc Dehaene over 400 yards. Better still, Germany's Helmut Kohl couldn't even get his leg over the crossbar. "Tony shows EU fatties a clean pair of wheels" was The Sun's headline.

And yet British politicians, unlike their American counterparts, do not jog. Why is this? Is it some curious manifestation of the fact that our lot stand for election whereas their lot run for office? Or is it because jogging, especially as practised by middle-aged men with slight paunches, is recognised over here for what it is, an embarrassing and thoroughly preposterous activity? As a determined non-jogger, the latter explanation gets my vote.

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