The Athletic Presidential Race

What do candidates' sports reveal about their character?

AMONG the first images to stamp the national consciousness after this summer's Clinton-Gore pairing were those of two pale-legged, not-too-trim guys jogging into the early morning light.

As a kind of phys-ed populism, that scene may be good for a few fractions of a percent of the vote among Americans who can identify with the average Joe's struggle to stay fit.

Meanwhile, Americans saw far fewer of the usual summer images of George Bush chopping through the Kennebunkport seas at the helm of his flashy cigarette boat - usually dragging some hapless dignitary on a white-knuckle, coif-mussing adventure. Advisers reportedly wanted to minimize the appearance of a president insensitively at play with expensive toys in bad economic times.

From outdoor adventurer Teddy Roosevelt's manly reign to Ronald Reagan's aw-shucks brand of physical activity (his famous wood-chopping was done with a chainsaw, but the lumberjack shirts looked authentic), outdoorsmanly vigor has long been one window on a president's character.

Who can forget what a couple of stumbles and a few hooked golf shots did to cast quite-athletic President Gerald Ford forever as a "bumbler"? Or the way John F. Kennedy's sporting tan played against Richard M. Nixon's peaked pallor in the 1960 televised debates? `Aura' of athletic success

"There is an aura around people who succeed and compete successfully and who are physically fit.... It's a `halo effect' that causes them to be perceived as more credible, more trustworthy, more knowledgeable," observes Robert Schleser, co-director of the Center of Sport and Performance Psychology at the Illinois Institute of Technology. "Bush and Clinton are both clearly pursuing that in the campaign."

There is a conspicuous lack of sports imagery for the on-again off-again candidate, Ross Perot. Few citizens recall ever seeing him in shirtsleeves, let alone at play. And that, says Dr. Schleser, reinforces the candidate's rather one-dimensional, businesslike image compared with the traditional campaign efforts by Bush and Clinton to present themselves as "complete" people.

"You can tell a certain amount about character" from a person's sport, says George Plimpton, the participatory journalist who - among other things - joined the Detroit Lions professional football team for a season and lived to write about it.

But, like others who muse about it for fun, Mr. Plimpton cautions that the sports-character metaphor can be carried too far.

"Teddy Roosevelt was a good boxer and he was pugnacious. Richard Nixon used to go down and bowl alone in the White House; I don't know if that says something about his character," Plimpton says.

Looking at the major candidates as jocks, Plimpton says, "Bush obviously has the upper hand because he loves sports.... He's terrifically competitive. Clinton is a brain. I have no idea what he does [for fitness]."

Interviews with those who know or study the candidates suggest that there is a clear, even instructive, distinction in sporting style between the Democratic and Republican tickets this year.

Bush and Vice President Dan Quayle are nearly legendary sportsmen among those who have spent time with them. Both are natural athletes and both are seriously competitive in sports.

Clinton and running mate Sen. Al Gore, on the other hand, are both prone to weight gain and pursue running in a studied, non-competitive way.

Speed and competitiveness define the President's style, says Ken Raynor, the golf professional at Cape Arundel Golf Club in Kennebunkport, Maine, where Bush grew up playing golf.

"Anything he does, it's `Do it well, but do it quick,' " says Mr. Raynor, who says the president is not much for practice or contemplating technique. Raynor regularly plays an early-morning round of 18 holes with the president - in half the average three-hour time it takes most people. Quayle's low golf scores

Likewise, recalls Randy Reifers, who played with Dan Quayle on the DePauw University golf team, the vice president "wasn't much of a practicer," and was known for being the last one on the course at matches. But he never hit "no-brain shots," says Mr. Reifers, and his consistently low scores were always the ones that saved the team score.

"Because of his age and fairly good physique, [Bush] can probably use sport better than Clinton, [who] doesn't strike me or the public as a sportsman," observes Jeffrey Benedict, research associate at the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University.

Indeed, Bush is born to an old-school tradition of "patrician, Yale athleticism ... in which sport is a coded way of teaching aggression for that class," says Marshall Blonsky, a New School of Social Research semiotician who wrote "American Mythologies," an examination of social imagery.

Meanwhile, he says, "Clinton, coming from the wrong side of the tracks, is not going to feel in his bones the same way. He's not going to like sport; he's semi-intellectual and he's going to have to put sport on."

Clinton started running to meet athletic prerequisites to be a Rhodes Scholar. But the Democrat was never a natural athlete, his press secretary, Michael Gaul-din, explains. He says the Arkansas governor describes himself as "the fat kid in the band." Gauldin adds that the governor's running style (full of all the studied "techniques" - warm-ups, attention to breathing, and plodding regularity - that are anathema to Bush's sporting ways) is quite like Clinton's studied, technical leadership style.

His running mate, Senator Gore, has perfected the regularity of his running. Having been in the Democratic primaries in 1988 and lost his regular jogging schedule, he has built in an hour's running time as a requisite in his schedule this year, says his Arlington, Va., running companion Jim Kohlmoos.

Very little can change the senator's determination to run - except perhaps the Secret Service crew that has nixed certain neighborhood routes, says Kohlmoos.

Not even his wife Tipper's urgings - to join her in her own passion of the past two years for rollerblading - have cracked the senator's running resolve.

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