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Elvis Has Left the Building

Elvis Has Left the Building

Corporeal reflections on the presidential inauguration

After months of political and electoral hairsplitting, one fact remains indisputable: When George W. Bush steps off the inaugural dais this Saturday, America will have a noticeably slimmer president. Not only does he weigh less than the outgoing commander in chief, whose heft was pegged at 214 pounds last week, but Bush’s cabinet, according to commentator David Brooks, is likewise remarkable for its healthy glow. When the cabinet finally assembles at the White House, it may look more like a group of instructors from the Capitol Hill Squash Club than the brain trust of the new administration.

The fact that Bush’s cabinet seems conspicuously fit is telling. Indeed, the “team”—as Dubya calls it—reflects a trend, started by our new president, that was already apparent in November. During the agonizing days of the election recount, it was widely reported that Bush was absent from strategy sessions, choosing instead to work out in the gym, do chores on the ranch, or go for a jog. Throughout the crisis, he seemed keen to defend the sacred prerogatives of lifestyle in the midst of political upheaval (or limbo). No squabble over hanging chads was going to keep this man from burning a few calories on the trail. After he had been declared the winner, Bush once again showed his yen for activity when he drove two New York Times reporters around his Crawford property in a mud-spattered all-terrain vehicle, hiking them up to a limestone quarry to view one of his favorite waterfalls.

Watching the images from Crawford, I wondered how—politically, morally—this passion for the active life was playing in the American psyche. In a recent appearance with his father in Florida, the president-elect could be seen wearing a stylish Western belt—cinched close around the waist, with a silver tip and buckle—to go with his trademark cowboy boots. Here was a virtual advertisement for the vigorous life, the Protestant virtues of hard work, discipline, and self-restraint. After years of watching our outgoing president on the world stage, many Americans may have noticed Dubya’s lack of a hanging gut and his youthful, almost boyish appearance. What, some may have asked, does this man do all day?

As Bush sat fidgeting on the edge of a chair during his meeting with Clinton last month, I wondered if he spends much time sitting down. The image could not have been more striking. On the left, a newcomer to national politics with an impressive family pedigree and the leisure habits of a prep-school man turned weekend rancher. On the right, the doughy but confident figure of the outgoing president—hair gone white from stress, cholesterol running high from lack of exercise—one who since his campaign in 1992 has been repeatedly compared to Elvis Presley for his up-from-nothing roots, raw sexuality, and turbulent appetites. The sincere bags under Clinton’s eyes suggested love-me-tender wistfulness. His retiring presence in the chair marked him as Big Dog in Chief.

When he leaves the building as a popular but oft embattled two-term president later this week, the departure of the Elvis-like Clinton will mark an important change in the body politic, and perhaps in our weight-conscious national psyche. Our svelte new leader is a walking metaphor for a program of “slimming” that selfsame body after years of apparently “compulsive” excess. Clinton, on the other hand, who has been mocked for his frequent visits to McDonald’s and his barely controllable compulsion for junk food (a reprise of Elvis’ fried peanut butter and banana sandwich?), seems to be the ideal foil in this comparison. Like his appetite for food, women, and self-destruction, Clinton’s passion for details and tendency to quibble about his past suggest a need for both denial and control. His appetites reveal his truer, deeper self. Once again, the body is metaphor for the man.

It is no accident that we think of our leaders in this way, since it is the way we think of ourselves. Mainstream America has been obsessed with weight since the aerobics craze swept the country in the ’70s, although now it seems that more men than ever are eyeing their waistlines anxiously. The staying power of the health movement has been remarkable, all the more so because it has produced such poor results. Significantly more Americans are medically obese today than were 30 years ago and, like America’s failed war on drugs, our war on fat seems to have been as ineffectual. Yet Richard Simmons still turns up on talk shows with the same impossible optimism, while newer additions to the weight-loss pantheon such as Billy Blanks, the Tae Bo guru, stand ready to take his place. There is always a new exercise machine, sports drink, or weight-loss program on the market, each with a money-back guarantee. A quick search of the Internet will turn up weight-loss resources like “Optimal Human Performance Inc.” or “Banish Your Belly,” which will help you find your “inner coach.”

And yet in the struggle to lose weight, whether it be for health or looks, Americans are caught between two contradictory impulses. On the one hand, we like to put our collective shoulder to the wheel, do the necessary belt-tightening, and feel the moral rewards of saying no. “Thanks, but I’ve had enough.” The sentence bespeaks unwavering discipline, a willingness to make sacrifices for washboard abs. It is the triumph of the bean-counter within.

But we also like to forgive ourselves. “Sure I’m a little overweight, but it’s OK. People like me.” Like a dare, we utter these words hoping that the health gods will not strike us dead where we stand. And they usually don’t. Why suffer the trials of self-improvement if you are already liked? Why discipline the body when there are so many fabulous ways to ruin it?

Which brings us back to the transition of power about to take place in the nation’s capital. The Clinton era has fostered an interesting confluence of these dueling American passions for self-improvement and forgiveness, with the latter suit playing trump. “People like me” may in fact be Bill Clinton’s swan song, even if he can leave with certain accomplishments under his belt (so to speak).

But the Clinton era has also been a period when bodies, yours and mine, have become more loaded with political and moral meaning than ever. Working out—whether at the gym or on the ranch—is the single best way to build character at the turn of the 21st century, since there are so few other yardsticks of virtue that can be agreed upon. Clinton is no William Howard Taft—who was reportedly 350 pounds at his inauguration—and George Bush is no Billy Blanks. But both preside over an American populace absolutely convinced that the body does not lie.

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