Richard Simmons descends on Capitol Hill to whip Washington into shape.

Washington, DC

As Richard Simmons prances up the steps of the Cannon House Office Building, he bypasses the assembled congressmen and their aides stationed at a podium and marches straight toward the swarm of news cameras at the far end of the veranda. With a sudden, two-armed wave that could, it seems plausible, lead to a backbend, Simmons wails out “Hi everybody, how are we feeling today?” Footloose’s “Let’s Hear it for the Boy” begins to blare from an unseen loudspeaker. The crowd of mostly congressional interns and Hill staffers in various states of smile-plastered bemusement cheer into their cell phones, which they use to alternately take pictures and text. Richard Simmons striding through a crowd of Washington suits in a bright red tank-top-and-tiny-shorts combo made suitable for the occasion with red, white, and blue rhinestones, is the sort of spectacle that merits proof.

Simmons beams. His testimony before the House Education and Labor Committee went very well. He seems to have overcome his pre-testimony jitters, which he chronicled on his disarmingly personal blog:

You know I'm a little nervous and want to have Eggs Benedict with hollandaise sauce this morning. But, uh-uh! I'm gonna have fruit, some fat-free yogurt and an English Muffin, instead.

Joanne Olson, a PE teacher for more years than she’d care to admit to anyone scribbling on a notepad, who came all the way from Queen Anne’s County to hear Simmons speak exclaimed, “He was just fan-tastic.”

In his capacity as “Fitness Expert and Advocate,” Simmons joined Congressmen George Miller (D - CA), Zach Wamp (R-TN), and Ron Kind (D-WI) to advocate for an amendment to the “No Child Left Behind” called the “Fitness Integrated With Teaching Kids Act,” which would protect funding for physical education programs in public schools. All emotion, Simmons described to the committee his experience as an obese teenager: “I grew up in New Orleans. I would’ve taken the leaves off the front yard tree, dipped ’em in eggs and batter and fried ’em, and I’d eat ’em.” Though it was a crash diet at age 19 that was responsible for his initial, dramatic weight loss (and, incidentally, left him completely bald--necessitating three hair-transplant surgeries resulting in his trademark crop), he credits his daily fitness regimen as the key to maintaining his healthy body and, to understate, his healthy attitude.

I'll read this morning's edition of the Washington Post so I'm in the know and, of course, I'll also exercise this morning. I'll find a good radio station that plays the kind of music I like and do my aerobics, pushups and sit-ups to the beat.

“Hey, Richard!” Congressman Kind calls out over the ruckus, pleading gently, “Over here, buddy.” Simmons obliges and makes his way the podium to address a growing number of spectators. “Raise your hand if you worked out today!” He deadpans; “Well, good for all four of you.” The crowd laughs. “Me, I was bitten by the sweat bug a long time ago. When I work--when I move my body (hip shake)--I feel good about myself. If you have self-worth, and if you can look in the mirror and know your self worth, then you’ll have a positive attitude in life.”

Simmons, who sat for a two-hour testimony in a now-forsaken conservative black suit, is done with formalities, done with the podiums and the microphones and the teleprompters. He is here to sweat.

Suits look great on mannequins but really not-so-good on me! I always feel like I'm in costume when I'm wearing a suit. LOL. You know me, I'm much more secure in my tank tops and shorts!

He motions to an assistant, who turns on a disco-fied remix of “Yankee Doodle Dandee.” Jogging to the center of the crowd, air kissing all the way, he shrieks, “STOMP IT OUT!” On command, staffers in pencil skirts, tourists, and a contingent of Simmons-supporting PE teachers are lead in a highly aerobic line dance. “SCISSORS,” he cries, and arms shoot in the air, criss-crossing in time. “I DON’T HEAR YOU SINGING! AREN’T YOU PATRIOTIC?”

“Wait.” He stops short, struck by a thought. The music cuts out. “Three hundred thousand Americans died last year due to obesity-related diseases. Today’s kids can’t be like their parents. The child that works out is the child that learns better and lives better.” He puts his hands on his hips, adrenaline fading. “My God. You all get a crown in heaven if you get a young person to work out and be healthy.”

With this, Simmons takes the hands of two women standing within arms-reach. “Let’s end with a prayer.” He bows his head and the crowd shuffles close, sweating together.

“Dear heavenly father. Thank you for bringing these people here today. You brought us all here for a purpose. Every step we take and every meal we eat we do in your name.”

As I stand there, ready to testify, I'll not be representing me and my ideas as much as I'll be representing the millions of parents of and overweight children across America. And hey, that's a really a big load on my shoulders.

 
Bess Kalb is an intern at The New Republic


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By Bess Kalb