Flex time: America’s presidential libraries have always delivered painless lessons in history; but now they’re offering a class in fitness – includes related article on the Truman Library

Holly Miller

America’s presidential libraries have always delivered painless lessons in history; but now they’re offering a class in fitness.

Usually, reporters come along looking for news, and most of the time they get it, if their legs hold out,” Harry Truman once said, referring to his early-morning fitness walks. His snappy pace–120 steps per minute for two miles–kept his 5’9″ frame lean, and left the media panting.

Still, Truman’s workouts were mild in comparison with those of Herbert Hoover and Calvin Coolidge. Concerned about the 20 pounds he had gained between his election and inauguration, Hoover appealed to his doctor to design a fitness plan. The result was “Hooverball,” a volleyball-style game that involved the president and his cabinet occasionally knocking the wind out of each other by heaving a ten-pound medicine ball up and over a ten-foot-high net on the south lawn of the White House. Coolidge, Hoover’s predecessor, preferred wild afternoon rides on a bucking mechanical horse.

Thanks to a joint effort of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports and the National Archives and Records Administration, Americans can trace first-family fitness by visiting a traveling exhibit currently making the rounds of the country’s presidential libraries. Spin-off programs and events, planned by each host library on the circuit, will underscore the point that all presidents since Teddy Roosevelt have weighed in on the side of fitness, and citizens should do likewise. For example, a commemorative walk in Independence, Missouri, recently re-created Truman’s daily constitutional from the family home at 219 North Delaware Street to his presidential library a mile and a half down the road. The pace was the legendary Truman trot, 120 steps per minute, and the walk was led by a Harry look-alike in a double-breasted suit and natty straw hat. The occasion was the opening of the show, aptly called “Flexing the Nation’s Muscle: Presidents, Physical Fitness and Sports in the American Century.”

“The exhibit also serves as a hook to get people to come here,” says Clay Bauske, resident curator at the Truman Library and guest curator of the traveling exhibition. The hope is that visitors may be lured by a crash course in presidential fitness but will stay for a lively lesson in history. (See the related story at right.)

The show tells the “story of the 20th century presidents and their efforts to lead Americans toward a more healthy and fit lifestyle,” says Sandra Perlmutter, executive director of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. “It has the potential of reaching hundreds of thousands of Americans with lessons about the rich history of the American presidency and the importance of maintaining a healthy and fit citizenry.”

It also offers insights into the determination of former presidents to use exercise to overcome debilitating physical conditions. Among the artifacts is a shoe with an attached 12-pound lead weight that Dwight Eisenhower wore as he performed leg lifts at his desk following a heart attack. Ronald Reagan’s hand grips and dumbbells recall the president’s efforts to regain his strength after an attempt to assassinate him in 1981. Franklin Roosevelt’s braces are poignant reminders of the paralysis that motivated him to swim several times a week to strengthen his upper body so he could project a vigorous image to a depressed country.

“My legs work wonderfully in the water and I need nothing artificial to keep myself afloat,” he once wrote to a friend during a summer vacation. “I have worn them [the braces] very little; especially as my arms are so strong that I hoist myself about from chair to chair.”

Each president’s height, weight, and exercise of choice are documented as part of the exhibit. Bill Clinton and George Bush are the tallest chief executives, at 6’2″, and several–Jimmy Carter and Jack Kennedy among them–tipped the scales at a lithe 170 pounds. Some presidents brought their sports with them (Bush always kept his college baseball mitt in a drawer of his Oval Office desk) and others developed their interests while in residence. Whatever the executive choice was, it generally touched off a spate of curiosity from the public and gifts from friends and admirers. The U.S. Golf Association installed a putting green, complete with sand trap, for Eisenhower’s use. Private donations of $30,000 underwrote an oval running track for Bill Clinton, and even Coolidge’s mechanical mount was the gift of a constituent who heard about the president’s fondness for his (real) horse, Mistletoe.

But what do you give a president whose favorite pastime is as mundane as walking? An admirer once sent Truman a pedometer, engraved: “For President Truman and his steps forward.” Acknowledging the gift, Truman wrote, “The very next morning after I received it I rung up two and a half miles on it. I appreciate your sending it to me because now I can keep track of just how far I go.”

RELATED ARTICLE: The Buck Stopped Here

“It seems we have every pair of socks that Truman wore during World War II,” quips Larry Hackman, director of the Harry S. Truman Library in Independence, Missouri. And presidential socks are only the beginning. The facility–celebrating its 40th anniversary this month-has on display or in mothballs 14 million manuscript pages, 63 miles of motion–picture film. 700 hours of audio recordings, 94,000 photos, and 35,000 objects that range from the sophisticated to the bizarre. Among them: the White House’s first TV set, a Dumont; hand-scrawled love letters from Harry to his wife, Bess; his-and-her matching 1941 Chryslers; the famous “Buck Stops Here” desk ornament; a Truman likeness fashioned from a coconut; and another bust carved from Ivory soap.

“I like to think about this becoming the first `mature’ presidential library,” says Hackman, who wants to present Truman and the Truman era accurately, without overstating their impact or underplaying their controversy. Let’s face it, he says, “at some points in his presidency, Truman had a 28 percent popularity rating.” A recent library exhibit of 1940s cartoons, called “I’m Just Mild About Harry,” underscored the country’s less-than-euphoric feelings toward its chief executive. One caricature depicted Truman with a strip of tape over his mouth. The punch line warned: “Do not open til Christmas.” Another urged voters to “Help hurry Harry home.” Tucked in the corner of the library is a starched Arrow shirt, sent from a California resident who accused Truman of taking “the shirt off my back.”

If library officials hope to use candor to depict their man from Missouri, they plan to use technology to attract upcoming generations. Unlike the newer libraries of JFK and Reagan, the Truman facility has few interactive displays. Museum curator Clay Bauske admits that history, even meticulously presented, isn’t enough of a draw in 1997. “In the past, our traditional audience has been people who remember Harry Truman and his presidency,” he says. “We’re beyond the stage where we can rely on that audience anymore.”

In the years leading up to the 21st century, the library will initiate a series of changes to make its story more gripping for school-age visitors. The effort comes none too soon. Truman museum specialist Pat Dorsey says she frequently has to assure young field-trippers that “this isn’t ancient history,” and that events of the past–even way back in the ’40s–shaped the world of the present. She recalls a recent junior-high student who, after wandering the exhibits, asked her: “Who’s this Hitler guy that you keep talking about?”

For More Information: The Truman Library is located at U.S. Highway 24 and Delaware in Independence, Missouri. Hours are Monday through Saturday, 9:00 to 5:00 p.m., Sundays from noon to 5:00 p.m. Call 816-833-1225 or 800-833-1225. Admission is $5 for adults, $4.50 for seniors, $3 for children 6-18, and free for children 5 and under.

PLAN AHEAD: “Flexing the Nation’s Muscle” closes at the Truman Library on July 12 and moves to the Jimmy Carter Library in Atlanta, where it will be on display from August I to September 14. It winds down the year at the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California, in October and November.

Next spring the exhibit takes to the road again with stopovers at the Eisenhower Library in Abilene, Kansas, in June and July 1998, and then on to the new George Bush Library in College Station, Texas, in September. The Lyndon B. Johnson Library in Austin, Texas, has booked it for early 1999.

COPYRIGHT 1997 Saturday Evening Post Society

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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