Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Bicycling and the Presidency, Part 2


With his acting background, Ronald Reagan knew the value of a good photograph, and thus there are plenty showing him perched on two wheels. Do a quick photo search, and what you get are images like the one above - Reagan and his first wife, Jane Wyman. There are a cluster of these "tandem" shots, one in which the couple stand over their own bikes, and another of Reagan with Dorothy Lamour (again, on tandem). This montage of nine photos showing Reagan and Wyman, makes it all but obvious that these were publicity shots. Yet another photo of the couple was used in the Schwinn catalog from 1946. While these photos are interesting from a voyeur perspective, the inherent nature of them - staged to capture the perfect moment, convey a particular sentiment - do not really tell us much.

Was there also substance hidden beneath the fluff? Did Reagan enjoy riding a bike in his free time? Lets face it, the internet these days is full of images of fashionably dressed women and men standing beside a bicycle, maybe even riding one long enough for a photographer to snap a few shots. But, at least in my opinion, in these photos there is little statement that the bicycle is anything more than a currently fashionable accessory.

There is no question that Reagan possessed an appreciation, if not love, of the outdoors. In 1988 Reagan signed a Bill (S.1544) to amend the National Trails System Improvement Act of 1968. Much of this amendment deals with abandoned railroad rights-of-way, especially as they pass through, or lie contiguous to, federal lands such as national forests and conservation areas. This, of course, has implications for the Rails-to-Trails movement which was gathering momentum in this same time period. In 1988 Reagan's term as President was drawing to a close (the Bill was signed by him in October), thus many people point to it as one of those end-of-term legacy-type signings. True or not, such arguments do not negate to reality of improved opportunities and access for purposes of bicycle recreation.

Unfortunately, it is hard to see that Reagan regarded bicycling as anything other than a recreational pursuit at best. While his White House predecessor encouraged the public to take to their bikes as a way to combat the fuel and energy crisis of the time, Reagan in 1980, cut funding for further studies of bicycle transportation. 

Of course this does not mean that the bicycle did not enter into his thought process from time to time during his years as President. In a June 14, 1986 radio address about Father's Day he said, "… More likely, fatherhood is repairing a bicycle wheel for the umpteenth time, knowing that it won't last the afternoon…" I guess a random bicycle analogy is not quite the same as acknowledging the greater role that bicycles could play in addressing many societal ills. On that point, Reagan missed the mark.


Before George H. W. Bush became the 41st President of the United States he held numerous government positions. Among these was a year-long stint as head of the US liaison office in Beijing, China (1974-1975). His diary accounts of that time detail bicycle rides around the city for meetings and social calls (see the China Diary of George H. W. Bush edited by Jeffrey A. Engel, 2008). In fact, it was while on one of those rides in Beijing that the future President received a communique requesting that he consider returning to the United States as new head of the Central Intelligence Agency.

In his first year as President, Bush received a gift of his and hers Flying Pigeon bicycles from Chinese Premier, Li Pang. A photo from the moment captured a smiling Bush astride "his" bike, while the Premier looks on. Beside this, though, my cursory exam has found little of substance concerning Bush's thoughts, or actions, on bicycles and bicycling in the United States. In some ways this seems strange; his exposure to the efficacy of bicycle transportation during his time in China, might have served to convince him of the bikes usefulness here in the States.

After Jimmy Carter, it took three Republican terms (two Reagan, one Bush), before we found another President who clearly enjoyed a good two wheeled spin while in office. Like his Presidential successor would later, Bill Clinton was presented with a bicycle by Lance Armstrong in 1999; that bicycle later made its way into an exhibit at the Clinton Library. In Spring of the year 2000 President Clinton, along with various aides, met with International Mountain Biking Association president, Ashley Korenblat, about concerns the advocacy group had regarding mountain bike use regulations in some newly established National Monuments. During an official visit to Vietnam in November 2000, President Clinton demonstrated the proper use of a bicycle helmet to a group of schoolchildren in Ho Chi Minh City; at the time the United States was sponsoring a program which provided children in the country with bicycle helmets.

Clinton's connection to the bicycle has continued beyond his years in office. A 2007 encounter with the former President, as noted on Streetsblog, has a rider holding aloft a banner during a speaking engagement in New York. The banner read "cycling is good citizenship", and after squinting to read it Clinton pointed at the rider and said, "I agree." In 2008 Bicycles Against Poverty received an Outstanding Commitment Award and grant to equip low-income families in northern Uganda with shared bicycles in order to aid transportation and facilitate economic development. That grant was awarded by the Clinton Global Initiative. In 2010, when Dan Maes was campaigning for Governor of Colorado, his ill-fated remarks concerning bicycling drew the mockery of the former President: "He (Maes) says that the bike paths that have made Denver one of the healthiest cities in the country are a plot to turn over Colorado's sovereignty to the United Nations, Clinton said, then paused and chuckled. I didn't make this stuff up."



This brings us to George W. Bush who, as you know, was an avid mountain biker of questionable ability. No … that may be overstating things a bit. Bush enjoyed/enjoys cycling for the recreational aspects, the thrill, adventure, and challenge. He has never been afraid to push his limits on two wheels. When one does that it sometimes leads to success and arms raised in victory; other times it leads to plowing a furrow in the ground with ones chin. Or bowling over a member of the local constabulary while on a visit to Scotland. No President before, nor during the limited time since, has been quite as enamored of a good bike ride. Whether it is riding around his Texas ranch, or some other trail in that big state or, as in more recent years, riding with the Wounded Warriors, Bush clearly likes bicycling. The thing is, I can find nothing beyond this recreational aspect. The internet is so overburdened with his down-time trail rides, and his infamous mishaps, that you go through page after page, after page of search results revealing nothing else.

Even the one policy mention I did find concerns recreation: Before leaving office at the end of 2008, Bush set in motion plans that would have opened up access for mountain bikes in some areas of some National Parks. The new rule would allow decisions about limited access to be made by park managers at the source, rather than bureaucratic regulators in the capitol. Not that there is anything wrong with that. Recreation is after all a legitimate use and, as someone who also mountain bikes for pleasure that is a potentially welcome change. But, as we know, the bicycle is so much more, and Bush seems to have failed to realize this.



Once again, it took another Democratic President to give word to the full potential of the bicycle. During his first presidential campaign, then Senator Barack Obama met with US bicycle industry leaders to discuss various bicycle initiatives. Among those in attendance were Tim Blumenthal of Bikes Belong, Kozo Shimano, Stan Day (SRAM), and Greg LeMond. Obama has long been an advocate for the livable cities movement: "Our communities will better serve all of their residents if we are able to leave our cars to walk, bicycle and access other transportation alternatives." This was a key component of his plan to make the United States a global energy leader, as detailed in 2008. The Obama administration will "ensure that more Metropolitan Planning Organizations create policies to incentivize greater bicycle and pedestrian usage of roads and sidewalks."

Only time will tell whether the Presidents' thoughts and ideas evolve into anything more significant and lasting. Regrettably, the media has seemed more preoccupied with Obama's apparent "dorkiness", fashion sense, and what type of bike he rides rather than any real substantive efforts set in motion by him.



So, that brings the story up to the present - everyone from Kennedy to Obama, at least in a non-in-depth sort of way. Undoubtedly there is more, and undoubtedly I will continue to search for it. All our most recent Presidents have lived through, and been witness to, the ill-effects of our over-dependance on motor vehicles. Their responses to these issues (poor health, resource depletion, pollution, community fragmentation, etc) will continue to be interpreted by society as the issues become more damning or are relieved over time. 

But Mike, you say, the bicycle revolution began in the 1800s and you began this series
(Part 1) with President John F. Kennedy, what gives? You are correct, and that is where part 3 comes in; I will go back in time to the very first President (and his successors) to ride a bike, or at least to comment on them. Stay tuned; the more things change, the more they stay the same. Or do they?

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