Age of abominable abdominal showmen

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 21 May, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 21 May, 2009, 12:00am

Sex sells; a sexy president makes an even better selling point. This is why the US society and lifestyle magazine Washingtonian - with a circulation of 400,000 - puts a shirtless Barack Obama on its current cover. There is no doubt about it - the US president has the tautest abs of any world leader in recent memory. Arnold Schwarzenegger? Have you seen those beach pictures taken of him shortly after he was elected California governor? He'd better wrap himself in shirts and suits these days. The late Ronald Reagan, the 'Great Communicator', also once bared his chest on a beach; he proved even better-endowed than his wife, Nancy, alas without the requisite muscle tone.

There has been much talk about the decline of American hegemony, but such young vigour from Mr Obama in full display may be enough to slow any decline for a while. The picture was secretly shot by paparazzi during a holiday in Hawaii shortly before he moved into the White House. For some reason, the magazine decided to change the colour of his trunks from the original black to red. Predictably, the cover has generated the buzz the magazine wants - and much more. Disrespectful, degrading and embarrassing are just a few of the more polite words critics have thrown at the magazine. As with most things Obama, the world is admiring. Oh, puritanical America! This is most puzzling to the rest of the world - don't they realise what a great (physical) asset they have in a leader who looks even better than Denzel Washington? Imagine what might happen if our own Donald Tsang Yam-kuen decided to take after that great swimmer Mao Zedong , to take a dip at Repulse Bay. No doubt press photographers would duly take pictures. But what if some misguided editor put him on the front cover? Sales would surely sink.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, not long ago, also took off his shirt to shock and awe the world; he must be green with envy now. His abs and pecs must have been admirable once, but age has taken its toll. While the Russian state-controlled media positively swooned, the world's media was less than enthused. Georgia's president, Mikhail Saakashvili, is a great bear of a man. His army may have been no match for the Russian bear, but he got Mr Putin's number when he referred to his vertically challenged nemesis as 'Lilliputin'. That was a lot wittier than Mr Putin's I-cut-off-your-testicles retorts, which he saves for impudent journalists and impertinent enemies.

Luckily, we Chinese are a lot more modest. Despite the Sino-US symbiosis, there is no danger of anyone ever comparing President Hu Jintao's abs - assuming he has any - with Mr Obama's. Mao might have started off an annual routine of taking a swim down the Yangtze. Old film footage showed that those daily dishes of red-braised Hunan pork - pure fat, which Mao craved like an addict - did not leave him in great physical shape. Those Maoist halcyon days were, after all, before the advent of advanced gym and electrolysis facilities. Since then, Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin had to put on their trunks at least once a year - thereby exposing their lack of muscle tone - to prove their fitness to stay at the top. However, after three decades of reform, Chinese have, wisely, put that central tenet of Maoism - about swimming - behind us. Mr Hu, a great promoter of Confucianism, no doubt advocates physical modesty. There must be places in the Analects that counsel against men of gravitas taking off their shirts in front of cameras.

Physical appeal is often dismissed by self-styled brainy pundits as the fickle concern of the great unwashed about their leaders. As a result, it has been a much neglected subject in electorate politics and international relations, despite it being a better predictor of success than many overrated attributes in a leader.

My own prediction is that, in 2013, Vogue will put Madame President Sarah Palin on its cover - in a red bikini.

Alex Lo is a senior writer at the Post