U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Sunday broke his leg while cycling just outside of Geneva in France. In between negotiations with his Iranian counterparts on a deal to limit their nuclear capabilities, the former senator and presidential candidate had an accident during an ascent on the Col de la Colombière, a difficult mountain pass that often is on the route of the Tour de France. He was rushed to a hospital in Geneva and then on Monday flown to the United States for treatment. While his broken right femur is not deemed serious, the accident will cut short his European diplomatic tour.
The 71-year-old Kerry is a bicycle enthusiast. During earlier negotiations with Iranian officials in March, he was photographed in Lausanne, Switzerland, dressed to compete riding on a high-end bike. He made local headlines when he stopped at a repair shop to fix his gear-shift mechanism. Even during his failed 2004 presidential bid, he was known to stop at Wheelworks in Belmont, a well-known bike shop outside of Boston.
But Kerry is more than just a bicycle enthusiast. One of the most memorable images from his failed 2004 campaign was a picture of him windsurfing off Nantucket. President George W. Bush’s media strategists compared the windsurfing to the vacillation of the Democratic candidate on important policy issues. ''I thought it so perfectly conveyed the message," said a senior adviser who used the pictures of Kerry in a damning political and campaign advertisement. The fact that the picture was taken off Nantucket, a famous summer retreat for the wealthy, added fuel to the fire. Kerry’s second wife, Teresa, is the widow of Republican Pennsylvania Senator John H. Heinz III, and estimated to have a net worth of between $750 million and $1.2 billion.
The cycling Kerry, aboard an expensive bike, perfectly fits the image created by Republicans. Patrician, wealthy, French-speaking, diplomatic, all go against the everyman image the Republican Party has tried to cultivate. Forget the wealth of the Bushes, forget that George H.W. and George W. went to Yale, as did Kerry. Kerry’s cosmopolitan image does play well in Switzerland, where he briefly attended private school. His walks along the Lake, dining at the Perle de Lac and in Veyrier, his graciousness in perfect French for Swiss hospitality after the previous round of Iranian talks, all reflect a personality that goes against the American heartland.
Is it a problem for a politician/diplomat to be an athlete? The simple answer is that it depends on the sport. President Gerald Ford played American football at the University of Michigan. (Those who doubted Ford’s intellectual capacities said he played too often without a helmet.) Perhaps the most famous example is John Kennedy playing touch football on Cape Cod. The fact that Kennedy had a bad back was secondary to the image conveyed of a youthful sportsman playing an American game with young members of the family. Emphasis here is on young and American. There have been politicians who played professional baseball (Jim Bunning), politicians who played professional pro football (Jack Kemp), politicians who played professional basketball (Bill Bradley), but there have been no politicians who played professional soccer.
Americans like healthy, athletic politicians. Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey, a potential Republican presidential candidate, is often chided for being woefully out of shape. The former Governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, is the obvious role model here. (Note to Swiss politicians: I am being tactful here in making no obvious comparisons. The Swiss are decidedly oblivious to the athletic achievements and physical condition of their leaders, a certain popular ski instructor excluded.)
Americans not only prefer healthy, athletic politicians, they want their politicians to partake in American sports. Pictures of a politician kicking a soccer ball with a daughter would be a political mistake. Cycling, soccer, windsurfing, even skiing, are not real American sports. Speaking foreign languages is also suspect. Kerry never spoke French during the campaign. The rash of Spanish-speaking candidates now is only because of the large number of Hispanic voters. (Jacques Chirac never spoke English in public, even though he lived in Boston for a while. By the way, what language do Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande speak when they are without translators?)
The Wall Street Journal recently headlined: “John Kerry: Not Your Average Cyclist.” He is not your average American either.