A Stomach for Politics

Photo: Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images (Clinton); Corbis (Kennedy); Bettmann/Corbis (Kennedy football); Alex Brandon/AP photo (Obama); Matt Sullivan/Getty Images (Ryan); TMZ.com/Splash News (Ryan shirtless)

Along with his affinity for Ayn Rand and his intentions for Medicare, profiles of Paul Ryan have invariably mentioned a more superficial but no less intriguing aspect of his biography: his devotion to the hard-core exercise program P90X. When that detail resurfaced following Ryan’s selection as Mitt Romney’s running mate, a not-insignificant portion of the American public demanded a gander at the results, leading to a call for shirtless photos of Ryan that even a TMZ scoop last Friday has not satisfied: The image (1) it scored was pre-P90X. The site, citing “sources close to Paul’s abs,” reported that the congressman’s stomach is even more chiseled now.

Lost in the Ryan gut-lust is the long tradition of scrutinizing political bellies. In 1965, after Lyndon Johnson had his gallbladder removed, he faced rumors that the operation had really been to excise a cancerous tumor. During a press conference outside Bethesda Naval Hospital, he famously lifted his shirt to reveal the telltale jagged cholecystectomy scar across his stomach. (TMI-wise, this was topped by the time Johnson showed his penis, which he’d nicknamed “Jumbo,” to a group of reporters.) More than 30 years later, Bill Clinton, dogged at the time by Paula Jones’s sexual-harassment lawsuit, was photographed in his swim trunks (2)—his baby-boomer torso exposed in all its flabby ­glory—as he slow-danced with Hillary on a beach in the Virgin Islands.

But in Washington as on the ­Jersey shore, it’s the toned abs that tend to get the most attention. The Kennedys, ever attuned to optics, were known to flash midriff—think of the iconic pictures of the twentysomething Jack aboard PT-109 (3) or bare-chested Bobby and Teddy playing touch football on the beach (4). A buff Reagan, running for governor of California, had himself photographed in his pool. In December 2008, as Barack Obama prepared to enter the White House, he was photographed sans top emerging from the Hawaii surf (5), prompting not US Weekly but the Washington Post to report: “The sun glinted off chiseled pectorals sculpted during four weight-lifting sessions each week, and a body toned by regular treadmill runs and basketball games.”

Sometimes, abs are the reason most people know the politician at all. Here the exemplar is the Illinois Republican Aaron Schock, who last year posed unbuttoned and six-packed (6) on the cover of Men’s Health under the headline “­America’s Fittest Congressman.”

That’s a title Ryan might contest. For the past several years, he’s led a group of congressmen (including Schock) in 6:30 a.m. workouts in the House gym. Many of those sessions are guided by a P90X ­video, with Ryan shouting along to guru Tony Horton’s dialogue. (“Did you all get tickets to the show? … The gun show!”) “He’s lean. He doesn’t have much body fat. He’s the leanest machine in the group,” Pennsylvania congressman Tim Murphy, who’s part of Ryan’s workout crew, told me. But when I asked if he’d actually seen Ryan’s unclad midsection in its present, “totally shredded” (TMZ, again) state, he faltered. “You really want to know that?” Murphy said. “He’s in good shape, really good shape,” he finally said, and left it at that.

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A Stomach for Politics