First Contact: Or, It's Later Than You Think



WHEN RALPH BAILEY, ATTACHÉ to the President, entered the family chambers at 5:26 A.M. with the news that aliens had contacted the American government, the President was on the treadmill.

“Good morning, Mr. President,” he said.

“Good morning, Ralph,” said the President. “You’re up early today.”

“Yes, sir. I have important news.”

“I have some big news too.”

“This is very important, sir.”

“Well, so is this. Yours can wait a minute, can’t it?”

Ralph wondered about this. It seemed a rather important item, the fact that aliens had reached Earth. The Secretary of State had told him to tell the President straightaway, to get him out of bed if he had to, but setting the agenda for conversations was an executive prerogative of which this president took full advantage.

“I suppose it can, sir,” Ralph said.

“Good.” The President stopped the treadmill, stepped off, and removed his sweaty shirt. The President liked being bare-chested.

“I ran my five miles in under thirty-five minutes this morning. That’s less than seven minutes per mile.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I haven’t done that since I took office.”

“It is very impressive, sir. It is a very impressive time.”

“Seriously, Ralph, how many men my age do you think could run five miles in under thirty-five minutes?”

“Not many, sir.”

“I bet I’m the fastest president in history.”

“You might very well be, sir.”

WHAT RALPH KNEW AND the President did not was that the treadmill in the family quarters was calibrated in kilometers, not miles. He had thus run five kilometers in thirty-five minutes, which comes out to a little more than ten minutes per mile. This explained the President’s absolute preference for the treadmill to running outside. When the President ran outside, his times were, of course, in the range of ten minutes per mile. The President attributed his diminished fleetness outdoors to allergies and car exhaust and hence preferred to exercise in the controlled, allergen-free, positive-ion-charged environment of the White House, where his improved performances were, he felt, more reflective of his natural abilities. Ralph, who had overseen the installation of the exercise equipment, knew better. He had thought of explaining the error to the President but, wisely, rejected the idea. A longtime jogger, the President was quite invested in his physical fitness and the importance of physical fitness generally. He took enormous pride in the fact that since entering office, he had knocked three minutes per mile off his running times.

THE PRESIDENT POPPED INTO the shower. He emerged glistening, took a towel from the rack, and began the process of drying himself, beginning, ceremoniously, with his hair and underarms.

Ralph felt an increasing sense of urgency to get the news out. He imagined the Secretary would be quite upset with the delay. The Secretary knew how the President could be when he got his mind on something, particularly in the morning when he brimmed with energy, but this was big.

“Tell me, Ralph,” the President said as he wiped his chest. “Suppose we were to stage a race among all the presidents of the United States. Ten-k, flat course. Who would you pick to run against me?”

“Just the living presidents in their current physical condition, sir?”

“Ha!” roared the President. “You’re obviously not much of a sports fan, are you, Ralph?”

“No, sir.”

“It would be meaningless to make a comparison on the basis of two athletes’ current physical state. Suppose someone asks you who is better, Kobe Bryant or Oscar Robertson? You’re obviously going to pick Kobe. He is thirty-one. Oscar Robertson is seventy-one. So you have to go with Bryant. But in his prime, son, Bryant couldn’t have carried the Big O’s towel. That’s the interesting question, Ralph: Who was better in his prime?”

The President moved the drying process down to his feet. He paid careful attention to a bunion.

“Living presidents would be no competition for me. Who did you have in mind? Carter? Clinton? One of the Bushes? I don’t think any of them could run a twenty-minute mile. They couldn’t beat me even if you let them run as a relay team.” The President laughed. “No, Ralph,” he said, “the question is me as I am today against any president at the peak of his physical fitness. If you want to pick FDR, you can have him with his good legs. Now, who’s it going to be?”

“I’m not sure, sir. I’ve never really thought about this before.”

This was, of course, true. Ralph had never thought of the question before.

“Well, think about it now,” the President said.

As Ralph thought, he understood the question was not really who could offer