I was not, I confess, entirely prepared when the President of
the United States shook my hand, looked me in the eye and
asked--unbidden--as I was leaving the White House, "You think
Bonds is on steroids?"
This was last Thursday, in the Roosevelt Room, adjacent to the
Oval Office. Yet it might have been any office or den in America,
except that behind us, on the mantelpiece--where you or I might
have a bobblehead Jeter--was the 1906 Nobel Peace Prize.
Even so, President George W. Bush proved disarmingly
down-to-earth while discussing, for 45 minutes, sports and
fitness in America. Said Dubya, on the dearth of dubyas for the
last-place Texas Rangers (the team he once owned), "Right now,
they've got the highest cost per win in the history of baseball."
He laughed and looked, however briefly, unburdened, Middle East
yielding to AL West.
I called him "Mr. President," and he called me "Mr. Sports
Illustrated," and when I asked Bush which athletes he admired, he
mentioned Big Texas, which is what the President sometimes calls
Nolan Ryan, who pitched, at age 46, for the Rangers during the
Bush era. "His last day pitching," said Bush, with evident pride
while clutching his right biceps, "was when his muscle snapped
and rolled up like a rubber band."
As he spoke of Big Texas, Bush looked like Bigger Texas, wearing
a belt buckle (bearing the presidential seal) slightly smaller
than a beer coaster.
It is a lean frame that supports the weight of the world. Bush
evidently doesn't indulge in the candy bars available for world
leaders in the West Wing lobby waiting room, where Jiang Zemin
might help himself to a handful of Snickers. The President pumps
iron--the most powerful man in the world can bench 215--while
lamenting that his workout routine has become, inescapably, too
routine. "I'm captured in a bubble," the President said. Running
has become his mistress, but she is a tease, for the onetime
marathoner cannot, as Chief Executive, enter a Fun Run on the
spur of the moment. "It's one of the saddest things about the
presidency," said Bush. "There can be nothing better than taking
off and heading out and running the Mall." But he'll never know.
It's just beyond the back fence and forever out of reach.
And so he endures the loneliness of the middle-distance runner,
turning endless laps, four days a week, three to four miles a
day, at a 6:45 to 7:30 pace, almost exclusively on a quarter-mile
circuit on the South Lawn. "Listen, the south ground is
fantastic," he said, "but you've run it once, you've run it a
Seated across from the President was another runner, England's
Sebastian Coe, former world-record holder in the mile, two-time
Olympic medalist and, in the past decade, member of Parliament.
When Coe innocently asked Bush what he thought of steroids, the
President had news for the Briton. "We've got kind of a debate
here in America, and you're trying to draw me right into the
crosshairs of the Sports Illustrated writer," he said. "Listen,
people shouldn't abuse drugs. And there's an interesting debate
in America as to whether or not baseball players should be
tested. I've always felt like they should be."
Bush played Little League baseball in Texas. "I was clean, by the
way," he told the Sports Illustrated writer. And for the record,
he gave Barry Bonds the benefit of the doubt. "As we get older,"
said the President, patting his modest waistline, "many of us
tend to get heavier."
In front of Bush was a blank legal pad, and on the pad was a
round, candy-cane-striped mint in clear cellophane. It had been
waiting for him when he entered the room.
"The first organized athletics our little girls played was
soccer," he said at one point, glancing at the mint. "Or
swarmball, I guess you could call it." Bush smiled sheepishly
and for a moment was lost in the memory. "They were like little
bees, you know? It was one of my proudest moments when one of
our daughters scored a goal. God, I remember hugging Laura." The
President held out his arms in a bear hug. "It was like a
dramatic event for us," he said. "One of the few athletic feats."
Suddenly the President recalled his daughter Barbara, barely in
grade school, being fouled in a basketball game. "And I'll never
forget the look on her face. 'That's a long way away,'" the
President squeaked, and pantomimed the little girl looking from
foul line to basket. Bush crinkled his eyes, which appeared to go
glossy, and said, "This little-bitty girl...."
Earlier, Bush had wistfully alluded to a time, prepresidency,
"when I was free." And for a moment he was free again, just
another father--inexpressibly human--who counted, among his
proudest moments, a daughter's first goal.
A few minutes later, senior White House counsel Karen Hughes
mouthed to a press aide, "Wrap it up." In an instant the
President was returned to reality, the carriage transformed to a
pumpkin. In the West Bank on Thursday, Palestinian gunmen killed
five Israeli settlers.
The President rose from his chair. He left the mint on the table.
COLOR PHOTO: PETER GREGOIRE
Bush laughed and looked briefly unburdened, Middle East yielding
to AL West.