Averting a National Fitness Crisis: A Story of Pluck on the Front Lines

Topeka Capital-Journal
Jan. 9, 1991

There is more bad news for would be war correspondents. It wasn’t enough that the prospective war zone bans booze and wanton women, so now the Pentagon says journalists must pass a physical fitness test before they will be accredited to cover the troops in Operation Desert Shield.

Several men and women already have been tested, and only a few men have failed. This is not surprising, since men are less inclined to take this sort of thing seriously. Those found wanting probably went to the test directly from a wholesome lunch of spicy chili, barbecued ribs, cheesecake and a few beers.

Some men aren’t meant to pass physical fitness tests, and this simple fact calls to mind the greatest fitness crisis in the country’s history. It occurred in February 1963, and I am proud to say I played a major role in resolving it.

The White House was occupied at the time by John F. Kennedy, and it probably was his Irish humor and his bent for playing a dirty trick on his portly press secretary, Pierre Salinger, that started the whole thing. Robert F Kennedy, the attorney general, got into it, and in the end it turned out to be funny to everybody but Salinger.

The story goes that President Kennedy somehow learned that Teddy Roosevelt, when he was president, had sent a letter to the commandant of the Marine Corps saying every Marine should be able to walk 50 miles amd that White House personnel probably should be able to do it, too. You can smell a plot being hatched here.

Kennedy sent a similar message to the Marines, saying he thought the 50-mile hike was a great idea, and that he was designating Salinger to represent the White House in this great fitness crusade. To say the least, it wasn’t what you would call the logical choice.

In the clothing store, Salinger would have been called a stout. He was, unmistakeably, on the upholstered side. He knew and appreciated the good life, including good cigars, good food, good drink. He obviously took some care of himself, because he is still around, but he wasn’t what you would call a fanatic about it.

Salinger first thought he could hand the assignment off to others in the White House, particularly to the logical choices in the first place, the military liaison officers assigned there. But it wouldn’t wash. The president kept the needle in him, and so did the press.

Some reporters, however weren’t too insistent that Pierre take the walk, because it occurred to them they might have to walk along with him to provide proper coverage. Art Buchwald, for example, wrote that Salinger was a splendid example of a fat man and should be left alone.

The 50-mile hike was getting national attention now and a lot of people other than just Marines were doing it, or at least trying it. Salinger, who said he got footsore just walking across the street to the Hay Adams hotel for lunch, was on the spot.

You would be, too. Walking 50 miles is no breeze. Even if you walked four miles per hour, which is a pretty good pace, it would take you 12 1/2 hours, and that’s without stopping. If you took the normal rest stops, you’d be looking at 14 hours or more on the road.

Salinger decided to test himself. He planned a practice walk around Lake Barcroft, where he lived. He later wrote in his book, “With Kennedy,” that one Sunday morning he go rose at dawn had a big breakfast that included three cognacs, and set off. He walked five miles in 2 1/2 hours and felt really proud of himself until he read the newspaper next morning and learned that, on the day he was doing his five miles, Bobby Kennedy had walked 50 miles, from Washington to Camp David, along the C&O Canal towpath.

It was no joke, and it was well reported. Two men from the Justice Department had started with him but both dropped out after only 17 miles. Bobby kept right on going and finished with no problems in under 14 hours.

The pressure was really on Salinger now. It got worse when two of the military liaison officers said they were going on a 50-mile walk and taking Pierre with them. Buchwald wrote again that Salinger would never make it and said he planned to accompany the walk in a horse-drawn surrey, well stocked with cold chicken and champagne.

In his book, Salinger says he finally told Kennedy he just couldn’t do it, and the president replied he would have to get himself out of it. He knew how to do that and, looking back, it is a wonder he didn’t do it sooner.

He called the administrator of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, who happened to be yours truly. He says in his book he suggested a statement from me saying nobody should try to walk 50 miles without a doctors OK and without working up to it gradually.

What he actually said was something like “Help! You’ve got to get me off the hook.” I understood, having been on a few hooks myself. The warning was issued later that same day. Salinger, at a press conference, cited the statement of the president’s own fitness group and bowed out.

He closed with the line that became famous: “I may be plucky, but I am not stupid.”

A footnote to this story is that after Bobby Kennedy walked 50 miles the aforementioned administrator of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports became concerned that the press might ask him if he could do it, and he wondered if he could. He recognized he had more Salinger traits than Kennedy traits.

So one day at 5 a.m. he set off, not on the towpath, because he didn’t want to be found there, collapsed, and embarrass the government. He chose another path that offered refreshments and bathrooms.

The results of his effort are still classified.

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