Friday, November 10, 2006

Excerpt: The origin on the JFK 50 Mile Hike

Click here for article - "The Federal Government Takes on Physical Fitness."

Source: JFK Presidential Library and Museum.

Perhaps Kennedy's most famous intervention in the area of fitness, and an indicator of the extent to which the Council became identified with him, was the fifty-mile hike. The idea of the hike developed from Kennedy's discovery in late 1962 of an executive order from Theodore Roosevelt challenging U.S. Marine officers to finish 50 miles in twenty hours. Kennedy passed the document on to his own marine commandant, Gen. David M. Shoup, and suggested that Shoup bring it up to him as his, Shoup's, own discovery, with the proposal that modern day marines should duplicate this feat. Shoup, of course, responded speedily, and the President went on to say that:

"Should your report to me indicate that the strength and stamina of the modern Marine is at least equivalent to that of his antecedents, I will then ask Mr. Salinger to look into the matter personally and give me a report on the fitness of the White House Staff."

In his conversations with his press secretary, Pierre Salinger, Kennedy left no doubt that "look[ing] into the matter personally" would involve Salinger walking fifty miles himself. A well-padded individual with a sense of humor about himself, Salinger turned his efforts to avoid the hike into an open joke, finally releasing a statement on February 12, 1963, in which he publicly declined the honor. As justification, he pointed to Attorney General Robert Kennedy's completion of the hike as proof of the fitness of the administration. The President's brother had undertaken the hike on an impulse, and although clad in leather oxford shoes, had slogged the distance through snow and slush.

But the real impact of the fifty mile hike was with the public at large, which took the hike as a personal request and a challenge from their President. Furthermore, responsibility for the President's challenge was presumed to lie with the President's Council. This put the council in a tricky position. To disavow the hikes would undermine its declared purposes. On the other hand, the council wanted no part of having the hikes thrust on it as a program by an overenthusiastic public. As a compromise, the council sent out a cautious press release recommending a moderate, gradual program of walking for exercise. For the more persistent, the council prepared a background letter explaining the origin of the hike, again suggesting a sensible walking regimen, and stating emphatically that government agencies were not sponsoring or rewarding hikes.



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