I was not, I confess, entirely prepared when the President of the United States shook my hand, looked me in the eye and asked—unbidden—as I was leaving the White House, "You think Bonds is on steroids?"
This was last Thursday, in the Roosevelt Room, adjacent to the Oval Office. Yet it might have been any office or den in America, except that behind us, on the mantelpiece—where you or I might have a bobblehead Jeter—was the 1906 Nobel Peace Prize.
Even so, President George W. Bush proved disarmingly down-to-earth while discussing, for 45 minutes, sports and fitness in America. Said Dubya, on the dearth of dubyas for the last-place Texas Rangers (the team he once owned), "Right now, they've got the highest cost per win in the history of baseball." He laughed and looked, however briefly, unburdened, Middle East yielding to AL West.
I called him "Mr. President," and he called me "Mr. Sports Illustrated," and when I asked Bush which athletes he admired, he mentioned Big Texas, which is what the President sometimes calls Nolan Ryan, who pitched, at age 46, for the Rangers during the Bush era. "His last day pitching," said Bush, with evident pride while clutching his right biceps, "was when his muscle snapped and rolled up like a rubber band."
As he spoke of Big Texas, Bush looked like Bigger Texas, wearing a belt buckle (bearing the presidential seal) slightly smaller than a beer coaster.
It is a lean frame that supports the weight of the world. Bush evidently doesn't indulge in the candy bars available for world leaders in the West Wing lobby waiting room, where Jiang Zemin might help himself to a handful of Snickers. The President pumps iron—the most powerful man in the world can bench 215—while lamenting that his workout routine has become, inescapably, too routine. "I'm captured in a bubble," the President said. Running has become his mistress, but she is a tease, for the onetime marathoner cannot, as Chief Executive, enter a Fun Run on the spur of the moment. "It's one of the saddest things about the presidency," said Bush. "There can be nothing better than taking off and heading out and running the Mall." But he'll never know. It's just beyond the back fence and forever out of reach.
And so he endures the loneliness of the middle-distance runner, turning endless laps, four days a week, three to four miles a day, at a 6:45 to 7:30 pace, almost exclusively on a quarter-mile circuit on the South Lawn. "Listen, the south ground is fantastic," he said, "but you've run it once, you've run it a hundred times."
Seated across from the President was another runner, England's Sebastian Coe, former world-record holder in the mile, two-time Olympic medalist and, in the past decade, member of Parliament. When Coe innocently asked Bush what he thought of steroids, the President had news for the Briton. "We've got kind of a debate here in America, and you're trying to draw me right into the crosshairs of the Sports Illustrated writer," he said. "Listen, people shouldn't abuse drugs. And there's an interesting debate in America as to whether or not baseball players should be tested. I've always felt like they should be."
Bush played Little League baseball in Texas. "I was clean, by the way," he told the Sports Illustrated writer. And for the record, he gave Barry Bonds the benefit of the doubt. "As we get older," said the President, patting his modest waistline, "many of us tend to get heavier."
In front of Bush was a blank legal pad, and on the pad was a round, candy-cane-striped mint in clear cellophane. It had been waiting for him when he entered the room.