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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Calisthenic Personnel Policy

"Smith!" screamed the shrewish voice from the telescreen. "6079 Smith W.! Yes, you! Bend lower, please! ... Anyone under forty-five is perfectly capable of touching his toes. We don't all have the privilege of fighting in the front line, but at least we can all keep fit. Remember our boys on the Malabar front! And the sailors in the Floating Fortresses! Just think what they have to put up with. Now try again."
-- "1984," George Orwell


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WASHINGTON -- White House aides, explaining the president's decision to sack his economic adviser Lawrence Lindsey, told The Washington Post that President George W. Bush had "complained privately about his failure to exercise physically."

"Complained privately"? In other words, behind Lindsey's back the president called him a fat loser? No word on whether the president had one of his witty nicknames for Lindsey. ("Fat loser?" "Lard Butt"?)

Naturally, since this is the American president -- and not, say, Pootie-Poot (as Bush calls Vladimir Putin) in Russia -- the idea that people who ignore the great leader's call for calisthenics might be fired for it is, as always, treated with the gentlest of humor. The Post, noting others fired were also on the portly side, reported: "An administration official mused yesterday that Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham may start limiting his visits to Wendy's." (Wendy's is like a McDonald's for fat people.)

Does it really matter that the president might crack a few cruel fatso jokes at the expense of some of his employees? Does it matter that he has surrounded himself with aides who found those fatso cracks sufficiently funny, or sufficiently useful, to share with the press?

Perhaps it doesn't matter. But I can't help thinking it's revealing about Bush's character. This is the man nicknamed "The Texecutioner" -- because in his five years as governor of Texas, he oversaw the execution of 152 people, more than any other governor in the nation. At times he did so with the smirk one associates with a frat boy making fun of a fat boy: not just rejecting one woman's plea for a pardon in 1999, but making fun of her as he sent her to the chair, by whimperingly imitating her: "Please, don't kill me!"

Maybe he did a similar routine in the gym about Lindsey. I can see it now, the president, sweaty and relaxed (because Dick Cheney is actually running everything), entertaining his underlings with imitations: "Oooh, please, don't fire me! Oooh, I'm sooooo fat!"

This June, when Bush told the country to stop smoking and drinking and start jogging and eating less, I noted the media everywhere were either approving or indifferent. And I compared that to the reaction of Russian and American media to Putin's very similar call for fitness. The New York Times, for example, said Putin's exhortations to exercise told "a tale about the Russian condition -- not just physical, but psychological and political. ... The scramble [by politicians] to fulfill Mr. Putin's will -- comical to some, depressing to others -- has resonated far beyond Russian playing fields. It has provoked a debate about the national character, the wisdom of imposing change from above and even the president's commitment to democracy."

Well, I don't remember Putin going on to demand forced Soviet-style calisthenics. For that particular page from "1984," we had to wait for George Bush in 2002.

Matt Bivens, a former editor of The Moscow Times, is a fellow of The Nation Institute [www.thenation.com].