Bicycling and the Presidency, Part 1

Alright, well after that Alvey Adee post, I think I will keep the theme of Washington political figures, and their connection to the bicycle, going here.

"Nothing compares to the simple pleasure of a bike ride." When President John F. Kennedy uttered this simple one line sentence, I doubt he suspected it would become one of the most oft-quoted and identifiable thoughts in the bicycling world. Or maybe he did; after all when Presidents speak, people tend to listen.

Growing up the Kennedy boys were encouraged to be competitive and athletic. Once, when racing against one another on their bikes, eldest brother Joe and John collided head on. John came out much the worse, his wounds requiring twenty-eight stitches to close. There is not a lot of visual evidence of Kennedy's appreciation of the bicycle during his adult years; what he remembered from his youth, though, he passed down to his children - John Kennedy Jr., in particular, was widely-known as an experienced cyclist, often photographed and reported on.

On October 22, 1962 Kennedy signed a Memorandum of Disapproval of Bill to Amend the Tariff Classification of Lightweight Bicycles (HR.8938), noting that approval would effectively "double the import duties on certain types of bicycles". Those "types of bicycles" were those that had a "cantilever or curved frame, weighing less than 36 pounds." I have to imagine that the bill was supported by the bicycle manufacturing industry in the United States as a means of competing against European manufacturers. In rejecting the bill, the President noted that "should the American bicycle industry demonstrate the need for this relief, it should be provided" via a "wider variety" of options under the "recently approved Trade Expansion Act." Unsurprisingly, perhaps, this is not the only piece of legislation regarding the trade of bicycles to have crossed a President's desk for for approval or not. In my short search I found another, somewhat similar, bill from the Presidency of Jimmy Carter, and who knows how many others there have been.

Almost every President since (and many prior to) Kennedy's time in office, whether by word or by action, has had some connection to the bicycle. Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush, and finally, Obama all enjoyed getting out on either a relaxed cruise, or racing to the best of their ability.They have remarked upon the bicycle's health benefits, and its energy saving potential. Not only that, but many of the challengers to the throne have also spent time on two wheels - Dukakis, Romney, and Paul, to name but three. The single exception to this rule of the Presidency during that period appears to have been Lyndon Johnson. Johnson, whose term in office was, of course, dogged by the quagmire of the war in Vietnam may have had some reason to look with disfavor upon the humble mode of transport: Vietnam, the nation he referred to as a "fourth-rate raggedy-assed country" stymied the Presidents military efforts while moving more men and materials by bike than by motor vehicle. Well, maybe there was a connection there after all, just not in a way one would hope for.

Fortunately for Johnson there is actually more to be said, and it may be a little unfair to leave things with that image; young Lyndon, like most kids who grew up before the over-the-top focus on safety took hold of parent mentalities, is noted as having conned a brother into buying a new bike that was, in reality, sized more appropriately for Lyndon than for the brother (Bringing Up Lyndon in Texas Monthly, January 1976). Perhaps even more directly to the point Johnson, in a Special Message to Congress, February 8, 1965 said "the forgotten outdoorsmen of today are those who like to walk, hike, ride horseback or bicycle. For them we must have trails as well as highways. Nor should motor vehicles be permitted to tyrannize the more leisurely human traffic … We can and should have an abundance of trails for walking, cycling and horseback riding."

I can only suspect that if someone were to dig into the Richard Nixon archives they would be likely to find something of substance. Unfortunately the above photo is all that I am aware of. While it looks more like a publicity shot of the future President and his young family beneath the cherry trees on the Washington Mall, there is a clear understanding of the lifestyle choice that the bicycle provides.

Addressing Congress on October 8, 1974 Gerald Ford said that "if we all drive at least 5 percent fewer miles, we can save, almost unbelievably, 250,000 barrels of foreign oil per day. By the end of 1975, most of us can do better than 5 percent by carpooling, taking the bus, riding bikes, or just plain walking." Not quite the mode of bicycling I had in mind, but riding an exercise bike was part of Ford's morning routine while at the White House. Finally, and just for a bit of fun, Ed Kosmicki's Flickr pool contains a photo of the former President preparing to fire the starters' pistol at the 1988 Coors Classic in Vail, Colorado. A second photo in the same set shows Ford with race leaders Jeff Pierce and Jeanie Longo. If you search for photographs of President Ford riding a bike, the only thing you will see is one of a very young (little more than a toddler) Gerald perched on his bike with a cousin and two unidentified girls. Of course, there is an exercise bike photo as well, but that is just not the same.

On March 28, 1980 President Carter, by Proclamation, dedicated May 1 as National Bicycling Day: "Bicycling is finally breaking away in this country, making racers and riders out of a hundred million Americans. Whether they are huffing up mountain roads on vacation or commuting a few miles to work every day, bicycle riders are using their energy to save our energy, while their pumping legs mean pumping hearts and better health … Now, therefore, I, Jimmy Carter, President of the United States of America, do hereby declare May 1, 1980, National Bicycling Day." Carter frequently rode along the paths of Camp David when he was there; there are photos of him doing so, but my favorite has to be the one shown here of the President and Rosalynn sitting their bikes and looking out over the landscape. There is also a terrific photo of the former President and First Lady touring Yangshuo by bicycle in 1987. As recently as 2008 residents of Atlanta have spotted President Carter riding bike paths in the area, followed closely by his Secret Service agents. The same goes for his hometown of Plains where he frequently rides for breakfast at his favorite restaurant. If you were curious he rides a Specialized and a Rivendell. In 2009 Carter, and his wife Rosalynn, had both their bikes stolen from the Carter Center at Atlanta.

Next up, Presidents Reagan to Obama