A president's "strength" and "greatness."

A key concept of the Trump mystique is his notion of “greatness” and “strength.” Trump’s coarse language, his frequent threats of violence and his embrace of authoritarian principles and leaders demonstrate his concept of “greatness” and “strength;” and Trump’s words and actions have been persuasive to millions of people.

But is Trump correct?

How should “greatness” and “strength” be defined? With references to WWE wrestlers or Marvel Comics superheroes?

How should “greatness” and “strength” be demonstrated? With incitements to crowd violence? With derisive comments to women and journalists? With a Space Force?

How do the qualities of “strength” and “greatness” and the way we pursue them impact the security and prosperity of the nation?

Theodore Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy saw “strength” and “greatness” as a matter of personal responsibility and they urged Americans to embrace it — and have fun with it. They extolled Americans to work vigorously to develop their physical strength and asserted an inescapable connection between physical strength and mental vigor.

And there were national security implications in this pursuit: Roosevelt and Kennedy viewed the personal strength and mental vigor of America’s citizenry as the building blocks of a powerful and prosperous nation:

I wish to preach, not the doctrine of ignoble ease, but the doctrine of the strenuous life… for it is only through strife, through hard and dangerous endeavor, that we shall ultimately win the goal of true national greatness.” Theodore Roosevelt, April 10, 1899.

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Teddy Roosevelt and the 50 Mile Hike.

Teddy Roosevelt was a sickly child who despaired at his physical weakness and vowed to turn himself into a vigorous, strong man. In memoirs written towards the end of his life, Roosevelt said the athletic training he undertook as a boy to strengthen his body brought him, not only physical prowess, but spiritual and intellectual strength as well.

Roosevelt’s belief in the link between physical health and mental vigor defined his life and shaped his approach to governance. Cartoon depictions of Roosevelt punching political enemies were used to illustrate his legislative crusades championing progressive ideals. Under Roosevelt, it became acceptable to describe legislative initiatives as a “fight” for progress and reform.

Roosevelt’s childhood home in New York City.

Roosevelt’s athletic training began when he was still a boy, in a home gym his father built for an intensive program of weight-lifting and boxing lessons. An ex-prize fighter was hired to teach Roosevelt the sport; and Roosevelt’s love of boxing followed him through his college years at Harvard and eventually into the White House. There, sparring partners would spend an hour and a half with Roosevelt in the afternoons, in Roosevelt’s upstairs office. Roosevelt and his partner would strip to the waist, put on gloves and fight on a wrestling mat, with the room’s furniture pushed up against the walls.

In one White House sparring match with a partner half his age, Roosevelt sustained a hard smack to his left eye that detached his retina and led to blindness in the eye. Roosevelt later said of the injury: “Fortunately it was my left eye, but the sight has been dim ever since; and if it had been the right eye I should have been entirely unable to shoot.Roosevelt, then age 50, was ordered to hang up his gloves.

Roosevelt and son on a wild game hunt.

Roosevelt turned to other activities and scheduled two hours for vigorous physical exercise every afternoon. Senior staff members, diplomats, old friends and family members often joined him. A group of young Army officers who initially came to the White House to play tennis [the “Tennis Cabinet”] soon evolved into a cross-country team and regularly accompanied Roosevelt on “rough, cross-country walks.”

To begin their walks, Roosevelt and the men would choose a hiking destination some distance away from the White House and then attempt to reach that destination by following a straight line. To make the hike challenging, the men would intentionally avoid determining whether bodies of water, steep climbs or other natural hazards might lie in the way. Adhering to the straight line often forced the men to hike steep terrain, pass through dense woods, and swim across half-frozen rivers. Roosevelt loved it.

Roosevelt with John Muir in Yosemite.

While on one of these cross-country walks, members of the Tennis Cabinet complained to Roosevelt about the poor physical condition of their fellow soldiers. Roosevelt later said: “Some of the younger officers who were my constant companions on these walks and rides pointed out to me the condition of utter physical worthlessness into which certain of the elder ones had permitted themselves to lapse, and the very bad effect this would certainly have if ever the army were called into service.

Alarmed, Roosevelt investigated the allegations and found the complaints of his Tennis Cabinet were well-founded: “Many of the older officers were so unfit physically that their condition would have excited laughter, had it not been so serious, to think that they belonged to the military arm of the Government. Accordingly, I issued directions that each officer should prove his ability to walk fifty miles, or ride one hundred, in three days. This is, of course, a test which many a healthy middle-aged woman would be able to meet.

Roosevelt placed this directive in Executive Order 989 on December 9, 1908. The order included a requirement that 700 yards of the hike be completed on the double-time. Older officers unlikely to be sent into battle were allowed to request exemption from the hike, but any such request would be grounds for denying a future promotion.

But it would not last. Roosevelt’s 50-mile hike was abandoned after he left office. The 50-mile challenge fell into obscurity until it was discovered by another young, vigorous president.

Roosevelt in Brazil.

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Just prior to his inauguration, John F. Kennedy published an article in Sports Illustrated, entitled “The Soft American.” In the article, Kennedy asserted that “the physical well-being of the citizen is an important foundation for the vigor and vitality of all activities of the nation.” Citing the ancient admonition that a healthy mind requires a healthy body, Kennedy wrote: “the same civilizations which produced some of our highest achievements of philosophy and drama, government and art, also gave us a belief in the importance of physical soundness which has become a part of Western tradition.”

Golfing in Newport, RI.

Kennedy cited Selective Service rejection statistics from the Korean War period and disappointing youth physical fitness test results revealed during the Eisenhower era. Noting the increasing leisure time of Americans resulting from “modern advances,” Kennedy repeated Roosevelt’s warning against indolence and “slothful ease,” writing: “Intelligence and skill can only function at the peak of their capacity when the body is healthy and strong.” A strong mind required a strong body; and to Kennedy, a strong nation required a strong citizenry.

Once in office, Kennedy reorganized Eisenhower’s President’s Council on Youth Fitness and named Charles “Bud” Wilkinson, a highly successful University of Oklahoma football coach, as its new director. Kennedy took an active role in the work of the council, developing and promoting a voluntary curriculum to improve fitness in conjunction with a group of educational and medical organizations.

200,000 copies of Kennedy’s fitness curriculum were distributed at no cost and another 40,000 were sold. 250,000 school children participated in pilot fitness projects using the program in six states during the 1961-1962 school year. A “Fit as a Fiddle” newsreel was produced to explain the importance of physical fitness to children . Meredith Wilson, the creator of “The Music Man,” wrote a theme song for the program to be used during calisthenics that included the lyrics “go, you chicken fat, go.”

Improved fitness test results followed. Soon, schools across the country revised their physical education programs to incorporate the Kennedy fitness program into their curriculum.

Shoup in Tarawa, 1943.

In late 1962, Kennedy learned about Roosevelt’s 50-mile hike executive order. He then asked his Marine Commandant, David M. Shoup, to determine whether his Marines were as fit as those in Roosevelt’s time. Kennedy promised Shoup that if he determined his Marines had the strength and stamina of Roosevelt’s Marines, Kennedy would then ask his press secretary, Pierre Sallinger, to “look into the matter personally and give me a report on the fitness of the White House staff.Salinger, an overweight, jocular fellow, turned his efforts to avoid the 50-mile hike into a public joke, releasing a press statement formally declining the challenge.

Pierre Salinger jokes about his refusal to take the 50-mile challenge.

Marine Commandant Shoup took up the challenge and ordered twenty Marine officers from the 2nd Marine Division at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina — ten captains and ten lieutenants — to undertake the 50-mile challenge. The Associated Press published a press report on the 50-mile challenge and Shoup’s order to test twenty of his Marines on February 5, 1963, and the story received intense national attention. Individual hiking efforts by Kennedy family members and staff followed and all were heavily publicized, further fueling a national craze to take up the 50-mile challenge.

Robert Kennedy and his family.

Attorney General Robert Kennedy attempted to make up for Pierre Salinger’s nonperformance and took up the challenge on behalf of the Kennedy Administration staff. At 5:00 a.m. on February 9, 1963, without training or preparation and wearing leather oxford dress shoes, Kennedy hiked a 50-mile route along the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal towpath from Great Falls, Virginia, to Camp David, Maryland. He was accompanied by four aides and his dog, Brumis, a large Newfoundland.

After 25 miles of snow, slush and freezing temperatures, Robert Kennedy and his group was ready to give up; but journalists had heard about their hike. Soon, a helicopter carrying photographers and journalists arrived to cover the event, so the group continued. Although his aides dropped out along the way, Robert Kennedy completed the 50 miles, arriving at Camp David at almost 6:00 p.m. that evening. Pierre Salinger later pointed to Robert Kennedy’s accomplishment as proof of the Kennedy Administration’s physical fitness. [50 years later, in 2013, a Kennedy 50-Mile Walk was established to commemorate RFK’s historic walk. The memorial walk is now an annual event.]

Mrs. Kennedy and her sister, Lee Radziwill, in India.

Two weeks later, President Kennedy’s brother-in-law, Prince Radziwill, family friend Chuck Spalding, a photographer and Secret Service agent Clint Hill completed a 50-mile hike by walking on the newly constructed, but not yet opened, Sunshine State Parkway in south Florida. In his memoir, Hill describes receiving a spur-of-the-minute request from Mrs. Kennedy, vacationing in Florida with the president and family, to accompany the men on the hike. Like Robert Kennedy, Hill did the hike in leather shoes, and reports that the group needed several rest and cigarette breaks along the way.

President and Mrs. Kennedy visited the hikers by car as they reached the 45-mile point. On completing the hike, President Kennedy awarded Hill with a glass of champagne and a hand-made medallion on which the president had written: “For Dazzle. February 23, 1963.  The Order of the Pace Maker, He whom the Secret Service will follow into the Battle of the Sunshine Highway. Signed John F. Kennedy.

Reception following President Kennedy’s funeral. Mrs. Kennedy has her back to the camera. Teddy Kennedy to her right. McGeorge Bundy, Kennedy aide, to her left. Clint Hill, Secret Service, is on the far right, near the camera.

A group of seven young Capital Hill secretaries decided to show Press Secretary Salinger that they were in better shape than him and set out for their own 50-mile hike along the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal towpath. The Army provided a jeep and medical assistance along the way and the event received national press attention. Two of the secretaries dropped out after 27 miles and the remaining five stopped at dusk after 32 miles, proclaiming that they had met their challenge.

Gen. Tompkins.

When Shoup’s Marines took the challenge on February 12, 1963, their march was led by 51-year-old Brigadier General R. M. Tompkins, a highly decorated veteran of the South Pacific Island campaign of World War II. The Marines wore helmets and carried pistols and light packs, adding 25 pounds to their burden. General Tompkins used a walking stick and limped from an old shrapnel wound, but was able to finish in nineth place, completing the hike in 18:02, ahead of 25 other officers. The event was publicized nationally. Soon, the 50-mile challenge was taken up informally by other Marines on bases across the country.

In the wake of intense national publicity, individual men, women and children — alone and in small groups — undertook the 50-mile challenge. Boy Scout troops, college fraternities and youth groups organized 50-mile walks. Most of these walks were done without much advanced planning or training.

The President’s Fitness Council advised people who were not in good physical condition to avoid the 50-mile hikes and suggested those considering the challenge see their doctor first. The American Medical Association advised participants to first undertake a gradual program of training. Podiatrists advised walkers to wear two pairs of socks and leather shoes that were broken-in. Few challenge participants heeded any of these warnings.

A group of 400 high school students from Redwood High School in Marin County, California, took the 50-mile challenge on February 11, 1963. News reports say the school’s principal warned the hike could be a “killing effort” that could cause heart or lung damage; but student walkers, wearing cut-off jeans, Bermuda shorts, sweat suits, old football jerseys, army helmets, ski caps and straw hats, showed up at the starting line at the school anyway. Parents, California highway Patrol Officers and some Marine Corps reservists followed the students in cars and trucks. News reports say the roadway along the hike became dotted with discarded shoes thrown off by blistered hikers who attempted to complete their hike in bare feet. A group of 3,500 Portland, Oregon, students organized their own 50-mile hike a week later.

The 50-mile hike craze lasted through the spring of 1963, gradually waning in the summer months. It came to an end with President Kennedy’s assassination in November. [One hike continues: the JFK 50 Mile ultra-marathon, in Boonsboro, Maryland, is held annually on the Saturday before Thanksgiving.] The President’s Council on Physical Fitness would continue, with slight name changes and shifts in emphasis, under all subsequent presidents.

Kennedy’s exhortation that Americans engage in strenous physical activity became an enduring part of his legacy. The word “vigor,” and Kennedy’s Bostonian accent in pronouncing it, are inextricably linked with his memory. The best presidents have always been those who challenged us to do better — to strive for personal excellence.


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