Martial Arts and American Politicians

US Senators Quentin Burdock and Ted Stevens US Senators Quentin Burdock and Ted Stevens sparring with Safe-T gear.

On a recent Tuesday morning, astonished eyewitnesses beheld two Senators, a Democrat and a Republican, square off, sweat-beaded and grim-eyed. They circled each other, shouting menacing challenges. Then they rushed upon one another, kicking and punching. Our eyewitnesses edged closer. The aggressor was Sen. Quentin Burdick (D., N.D.), age 67, a burly six-footer, lumbering forward like the football star he once was, bulldozing the smaller but more agile Sen. Ted Stevens (R., Alaska), age 51.
In quick succession, Burdick threw a roundhouse kick (a knee cocker but with the foot brought round from the side), then a wheelhouse kick delivered with the back of the heel. Deftly, Stevens sidestepped the flying feet and returned a punch to Burdick’s head, a rifle shot, straight out, with a snap to it. What is this? Has Congress finally gone over the edge? Or is it a Washington grudge fight like the one a few years ago when Sen. Ralph Yarborough (D., Tex ) grappled in the Senate corridor with Sen. Strom Thurmond (R., S.C.)?

Reporters’ defenders
It was neither of these. Burdick and Stevens are members of the Congres-sional karate class that works out every Tuesday and Thursday in the Senate gym. The two are in training for a public bout on Sept. 14 at the District of Columbia Armory. They will be the feature fighters during a dazzling evening of martial arts. The proceeds will go to a legal defense fund for reporters, who are being dragged into court in increasing numbers in an attempt to silence the investigative press. Solons from ages 32 to 77 have en-rolled in the karate class on Capitol Hill. Practice sessions begin with strenuous exercises which the members call the “dirty dozen,” punctuated by ap-propriate bellows and grunts.

Leap and kick
Most of them have passed the stage where they can easily break one-inch boards with the sides of their hands. Their instructor is Jhoon Rhee, once the only man in the world who could leap high in the air and, before alighting, loose three separate kicks with mulelike force. He could break four boards held two feet above him. The Congressional students are slowly gaining on their teacher, pouring into their effort all the unnatural drive and combativeness that raised them to the Halls of Congress. The Capitol Hill karate corps was organized three years ago by Sen. Milton Young (R., N.D.) and Rep. James Symington (D., Mo.). Other members of the original first string include Speaker Carl Albert (D., Okla.), the bantamweight tyro, and Sen. Howard Cannon (D., Nev.), Richard Schweiker (R., Pa.) and Joseph Montoya (D., N.M.). Today’s varsity, besides Burdick and Stevens, includes six dreadnoughts from the House sidekick Ichord (D., Mo.), Tom Bevill (D., Ala.), Floyd Spence (R., S.C.), Edward Roybal (D., Cal.), Lester Wolff (D., N.Y.) and Walter Fauntroy, District of Columbia delegate. The purpose behind these semi-weekly ordeals of yowls, kicks and lunges is physical conditioning. Rep., Lester Wolff calls karate training “a great regimen of exercise which builds one’s self-confidence.” Senator Burdick says it relaxes him and keeps his mind sharp. Jim Symington calls karate “the most beneficial physical activity available for those with severely limited exercise time.” Senator Stevens credits it with keeping his weight at a steady level for the past few years, while Congressman Spence, who is 47, sees it as a bridge over the generation gulf. “My four sons don’t think their father’s over the hill now.” There is another motive, unspoken by the Congressional members but acknowledged by other Washington karate devotees: the quest for an effective means of self-protection against the rising tide of muggings that menace those who must tread Washington streets after dark. It may not be entirely a coincidence that the Capitol Hill karate corps suddenly became more popular shortly after Sen. John Stennis (D., Miss.) was shot and almost killed in an encounter with young hoodlums outside his home in January, 1973.

Protecting bones
Jhoon Rhee, who is guiding so many Washington celebrities in the ways of structured mayhem, is an immigrant from Seoul, Korea. He began in 1962 as a teacher of Tae-Kwon-Do—a Korean karate that is particularly aggressive but highly ritualistic in its postures, stances, yells. But the innovative Rhee soon transformed it into a less formalistic, more spectacular sport with full body contact. To prevent the decimation of his clientele that would have otherwise have been inevitable, Rhee invented safety equipment—headgear, padding for the hands and feet—to soften the impact of paralyzing blows. This equipment, plus the trainee’s physical conditioning and agility, helps keep bones from being broken like the boards that litter the floor of the Senate gym during practice. Remembering that Congressmen are past masters of sham combat in the legislative chambers, we asked whether the karate matches were on the level. Do they really go at each other? “You bet we do,” responded Senator Stevens. “We’ve surprised more than one observer.” And a junior member who understandably prefers anonymity told us: “Where else would you get the chance to take a good hard crack at a party leader or ranking member?”

Readable: Interview with Jhoon Rhee

Padding and conditioning not with-standing, there are occasional injuries. Congressman Wolff fractured his wrist delivering a clenched-fist blow. For some time he went around the corridors of Congress with his hand in a cast, wryly complaining: “There’s too much political arm-twisting going on around here.” And according to a usually reliable source, the redoubtable Burdick aimed high but hit low, landing a most distressing groin kick. Here the veil of Senatorial secrecy has been drawn about the incident; our investigators have been unable to crack the identity of the victim but have been told that his smile is exceeding thin.

The benefits
More typical, however, are stories of the benefits attributed to Congressional karate. Congressman Bevill feels that his karate conditioning averted serious injury and perhaps death, when he was in the Alabama bus accident that recently befell a Congressional delegation. Bevill was sitting up front, and a steel rod plunged into his stomach right below the chest cavity. His karate-toughened stomach muscles contained the rod, and he escaped without injury. Seventy-seven-year old Milton Young, who in 1974 was reelected to a fifth term by a narrow margin, may owe his Senate seat to his training sessions. The most telling campaign argument against the popular Young was that he was too old. The word was spread that by the end of his term, Young would be 83 and may not be vigorous enough to effectively serve the needs of North Dakota. But mysteriously, photos began to appear around the state showing Young in karate stances—kicking, punching, jumping—and North Dakotans decided that Young, indeed, was still young enough for them.
The question reverberates through the great Capitol complex: Who is the champ? Some say it is the deep-chested, tousle-haired Burdick. Others contend that at 67, Burdick is not the torpedo he once was. The question may be answered by the bout between Burdick and Stevens on Sept. 14, and by other matches between Congressional Odd Jobs on the same card.

Daily training: Burdick and Stevens, pitting size, strength and experience against speed, agility and youth—are both training daily for the September showdown. Burdick is running every day and says he will lose 20 pounds by fight time. Ted Stevens will get ready for Burdick by spending the August Senate recess taking private karate lessons. He puts on a convincing show of bravado, yet confesses: “My wife says I’m crazy to get in the ring with Burdick.” There are some who claim that the uncrowned King of the Congress is neither Burdick nor Stevens, but Congressman Dick Ichord. Ichord is already a three-board man, one who can break a stack of three boards with one kick. At age 49, he is feared for his sidekick (the stomp that goes out to the side). It was he who once stunned Burdick with a karate punch to the head. There is talk of matching Ichord against the victor of Burdick vs. Stevens. The 94th Congress, it may be said, has not produced much legislation, but it is generating a lot of excitement. As Burdick told us, “Karate is one of the best things we do on the Hill.”

The text in an excerpt of the following publication (Author: Jack Anderson)

World BlackBelt League
Event brochure of the 1975 karate team fight between the Washington DC Superstars and the Santo Domingo Stingers promoted by Jhoon Rhee.