The Emperor Has No Abs
An office routinely held by war heroes and athletes now belongs to someone as undisciplined with his health as he is with his Twitter account.
Since the beginning of the American experiment in self-governance, voters have chosen presidents who reflect their ideals and aspirations. The presidency was created with George Washington in mind because Washington was regarded as the finest man of his age. What he lacked in education he made up in character. Europeans and Americans alike were astounded to see a victorious revolutionary commander give up his commission, disband his army, and hand his new country off to others. He could've been king, but he chose to be a citizen.
Presidential historian Gordon Wood called it "the greatest act of his life, the one that made him internationally famous."
Not coincidentally, Washington looked the part of a victorious commander. Never mind those portraits that make him look practically disgendered, with narrow shoulders, a spreading middle and squishy thighs. His contemporaries described him as having an almost savage physical presence. He was considered the best horseman of his time and was almost unfathomably brave in combat.
We'll never know his resting heart rate, or his body composition, or how much he could deadlift. But we do know that, by 18th century standards, he was the best his race, gender, and social stratum had to offer.
No president could live up to that standard. And, to our credit, we've never expected them to. But more often than not, we've picked presidents who represent something we value. Dwight D. Eisenhower and Ulysses S. Grant, like Washington, commanded victorious armies. Nine others were generals, like Andrew Jackson, and several more were decorated combat heroes, like John F. Kennedy.
More to the point: Theodore Roosevelt, on top of his military exploits, was a fitness fanatic in an age when, for the first time in our history, Americans were genuinely interested in improving their health. He went on daily hikes, earned a brown belt in judo, and even boxed in the White House until a punch from a young military officer left him nearly blind in one eye.
Almost every president since then has had an active interest in sports and fitness. Woodrow Wilson is said to have played 1,000 rounds of golf in his two terms, the second of which was shortened by a stroke. (He even played in the snow, using black golf balls.) Eisenhower was also an enthusiastic golfer in between heart attacks. Herbert Hoover famously reinvented volleyball, using medicine balls. Kennedy, who suffered from Addison's disease and entered office as perhaps our most medically compromised president, projected the exact opposite to a nation that routinely saw him playing touch football on the beach with his family.
Gerald Ford, using private donations, had a swimming pool built on the South Lawn, and invited the press to watch him swimming laps. Jimmy Carter was our first jogger-in-chief. Reagan wrote an article for Parade that extolled progressive-resistance strength training. George H.W. Bush was a frenetic sportsman. (He once finished 18 holes of golf in under 2 hours, playing in a foursome.) Bill Clinton jogged. George W. Bush boasted of his marathon time and body composition, and crashed his mountain bike often enough that the conspiracy-minded wondered if there was permanent brain damage. Barack Obama worked out almost every day (probably still does).
Now consider president-elect Donald Trump.
He's the oldest president ever inaugurated, and probably among the fattest. He eats junk food. He claims to sleep just four hours a night. He once said his signature hand gestures were a form of exercise.
What does it say that an office routinely won by war heroes, adventurers, and restless athletes has been turned over to someone as undisciplined with his health as he is with his Twitter account?
Last year, Trump told The Daily Mail that he eats fast food several times a week. (A statement he gave, in fact, while eating fast food.) An anonymous source told The New York Times that Trump generally eats whatever he's craving that day, "which is more often than not McDonald's."
In fairness, Trump isn't the first President with a deep-fried palate. Clinton was famously loyal to the Golden Arches—to his credit, at least he jogged there. Bubba's also come a long way since his super-sized cravings last made headlines, going vegan—well, kind of—in recent years.
Clinton would have been right at home in the Obama administration. Michelle devoted the bulk of her time as First Lady to spreading the gospel of a healthy diet and regular exercise, tapping everyone from Sesame Street to Billy On the Street to evangelize for her cause. "We've just experienced a First Lady who led the nation in trying to prevent childhood obesity and promote healthy eating patterns," says Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at NYU. "I think her impact was enormous. But that kind of leadership is all too rare."
No studies have been done on the effect—consciously or not—that the President's health has on the average person, but some experts believe it's worth exploring. "Fitness, like weight, is an outcome," says David Katz, director of the Prevention Research Center at Yale. "Physical activity is a behavior, a choice, a decision. Being active says something about your character and priorities that a medical report can't."
More importantly, Katz argues, is the opportunity it provides those in the highest positions of power to lead by example. "[Trump] has much to say about how to pay for disease care while showing disdain for disease prevention through his lifestyle. Whether or not this dissuades people from exercising, I think it certainly encourages people to disparage expertise, and mistake their own worldview as a viable alternative," he says. "It propagates the view that 'health' care means hospitals, rather than hiking."
His lifestyle choices and eating habits aside, there's no question Trump is in relatively good health. He has twice the energy of men half his age. On the final day of the campaign he did 5 rallies in 5 different states, and won 4 out of 5. (He lost New Hampshire by 2,700, and won the other 4 by a combined 270,000.) Even with a private jet and massive campaign staff, I couldn't do that. Could you?
Also to his credit, he claims, plausibly, that he's never had a drink. He doesn't smoke, and there's no reason to think he takes drugs. He's clearly addicted to public adulation, but not only is that not a vice for President, it's pretty much Trump's only qualification for the job.
I wish I could say it mattered. I wish I could say the president should be a role model for our citizens, and project the healthy glow of our national vitality to the world. But that would be ridiculous. Trump told voters our nation is on life support, and that he alone can make it ambulatory again. Why would a man with such god-like powers need to work out? If he gets sick, he can simply heal himself.
Lou Schuler is a National Magazine Award-winning journalist, a certified strength and conditioning specialist, and author, most recently, of Strong.
Images: Stan Badz/Getty Images; Paul Schutzer/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images; Mandel Ngan/Getty Images
UPDATE 4/5/17: This story has been updated to reflect the fact that Trump has now taken office.