World’s Worst Gym TeacherOn October 21, 2020 by Elyse
Nobody tell U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt how few pushups I can do:
I wish to preach, not the doctrine of ignoble ease, but the doctrine of the strenuous life, the life of toil and effort, of labor and strife; to preach that highest form of success which comes, not to the man who desires mere easy peace, but to the man who does not shrink from danger, from hardship, or from bitter toil, and who out of these wins the splendid ultimate triumph.– U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, “The Strenuous Life,” April 10, 1899
Roosevelt’s proclivity for exercise—couch potatoes like me might say, “obsession”—is legendary. In his autobiography, he wrote, “While in the White House I always tried to get a couple of hours’ exercise in the afternoons—sometimes tennis, more often riding, or else a rough cross-country walk.” Not mentioned: boxing, rowing, polo, rock climbing, jujutsu and skinny dipping in the Potomac River in winter. My muscles ache just thinking about it.
Roosevelt is high up on the list of historical figures I’d invite to a dinner party, but you couldn’t pay me to exercise with him. Unfortunately, Sir Henry Mortimer Durand, the British ambassador to the U.S. during part of Roosevelt’s tenure, had no choice. His contract must’ve included an “other duties as assigned” clause.
Durand was appointed in 1903, but that was no guarantee of facetime with the president. In May 1904, he wrote:
Of Roosevelt himself I have no personal knowledge. I have never yet had a talk with him. He is busy and he is nervous about offending the Irish and Germans, which may possibly make him fight shy of me.
On the two or three occasions when we have met in public he has been civil enough, and he has told me and my wife that he wants me to ride with him, but he has never arranged it, and I know no more of him than I did after my first audience.– Sir Henry Mortimer Durand, May 1904, quoted in Percy Sykes’ Mortimer Durand – A Biography, 1926
I can picture Durand waiting by the phone for his invitation. The stakes were high:
Roosevelt is impulsive, not to say aggressive, and he was at one time anything but friendly to England. His great triumph in the elections will hardly tend to make him more conciliatory, and Lodge [an advisor perceived to be unfriendly] is always at his elbow ready to make mischief.– Sir Henry Mortimer Durand, May 1904, quoted in Percy Sykes’ Mortimer Durand – A Biography, 1926
Finally, Durand received that coveted invitation. Alas, things did not go as planned:
I have, to my sorrow, seen something more of the President. He invited me to lunch, was very pleasant, and asked me to come back later for a walk. We drove out to the Rock Creek, a wooded valley with a stream running through it, and he then plunged down the khud and made me struggle through bushes and over rocks for two hours and a half, at an impossible speed, till I was so done that I could hardly stand.
His great delight is rock climbing, which is my weak point. I disgraced myself completely, and my arms and shoulders are still stiff with dragging myself up by roots and ledges. At one place I fairly stuck, and could not get over the top till he caught me by the collar and hauled at me.
He is certainly a “ strenuous ” man all through. He was dripping with sweat, his clothes frayed by the rocks and bushes and covered with dirt, but he was as happy as a schoolboy.
We talked chiefly about the war and shooting. He greatly admires the Japanese, and wants them to win, but not in too crushing a manner. He did almost all the talking, to my great relief, for I had no breath to spare.– Sir Henry Mortimer Durand, May 1904, quoted in Percy Sykes’ Mortimer Durand – A Biography, 1926
Two years later, poor Durand was recalled to London—at Roosevelt’s insistence. I’m not saying the president made foreign policy decisions based on the physical fitness of other nations’ ambassadors . . . but maybe Durand should’ve spent more time at the gym.
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Disclaimer: The modern era is far from the first to grapple with rampant “fake news.” As I am neither a historian nor journalist, I make no claims about the accuracy or lack thereof of the above sources. I assert only that they make for a good story.
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