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Busting boards, not budgets, congressmen spar and kick


WASHINGTON -- Some jog, some swim and some pump iron.

But when Speaker of the House Thomas S. Foley wants to exercise, he puts on a white cotton uniform called a dobok, heads to the Rayburn building members' gym and breaks wooden boards.

With his hands.

And his elbows.

"In today's political world, using your head sometimes isn't enough," the speaker says. "You also have to learn to use your elbows."

Don't believe it? Then just come out tomorrow night to the Grand Ballroom of the Omni Shoreham Hotel. There, the speaker will demonstrate his Tae Kwon Do skills by busting a few boards during a welcoming ceremony for the 1,000 competitors at an international martial arts championship.

"We tell him to think of his favorite Republican," said Rep. Robert A. Borski, a Pennsylvania Democrat.

The speaker will not be alone in an athletic wilderness.

Missouri Democrat Ike Skelton will break boards with his feet.

Three Republican congressmen will join three Democrats in a martial arts ballet to the music of "God Bless America."

And two black-belt candidates, Mike Espy, the agriculture secretary, and Mr. Borski, will spar.

Protective gear is mandatory.

You've heard of the "Thrilla in Manila?"

This is the "Dust-up in the District."

"I am clearly the self-proclaimed underdog, and any logical betting spread would put me there," said Mr. Borski, a 1971 University of Baltimore graduate who played three years of varsity basketball. "Mike Espy is younger and stronger than I am. And he's tougher."

Overseeing them all is Jhoon Rhee, U.S. grandmaster to the political stars. Over 28 years, Mr. Rhee has taught more than 100 congressmen Tae Kwon Do, the martial art that dates back 2,000 years to the Korean kingdom of Sulia.

Mr. Rhee, 61, is a born-in-Korea and made-in-America success story.

L He came to the United States in 1956 with $46 in his pocket.

He now owns a string of martial arts studios and has a houseful of political, athletic and business trophies.

A BMW and Cadillac are parked in the garage of his McLean, Va., home.

A gigantic vase with a picture of former President George Bush, the man who presented Mr. Rhee with a "Point of Light" award, sits in the foyer. News releases, posters and Mr. Rhee's books are spread on the Jacobean-style dining room table.

"Spiritually, I am very successful," he said. "Materially, just fair."

One thing is certain: The man is in phenomenal physical shape. He can perform a split. He can kick his feet above his eyes, while balancing a water bottle on his head. His stomach is roughly the consistency of iron. His calf muscles are so well developed that it looks as if he has turtle shells pasted on the backs of his legs.

Mr. Rhee teaches, he said, to inspire, to change the world.

And that's where Congress comes in. He spreads his message of "knowledge, honesty and strength" in the corridors of power.

Mr. Rhee began his congressional classes in 1965 after reading of the mugging of a House member, James Cleveland.

"I called Mr. Cleveland, and I said to him, 'If you take martial arts, they will come in handy,' " Mr. Rhee said. "Others thought it was a good idea, too."

Currently, 15 congressmen are in the program. No female members have ever joined, but Mr. Rhee said all would be welcome.

He would even like a chance to reshape the physique of the nation's most famous jogger, President Clinton.

"If he takes my program, I can get him in two to three times better shape than he is in now," he said. "I can lead him to live 136 years, like I am planning."

The congressmen enjoy Mr. Rhee's workouts -- bumps, bruises and all.

"I broke a hand in a sparring bout," Mr. Borski said. "I think I was knocked out once. There was some missing time in my life."

The congressmen pay dues to belong to the gym, but Mr. Rhee's lessons are free.

He also provides uniforms and equipment free because, he says, "I'm grateful and inspired for America, and its system should spread throughout the globe."

Mr. Rhee's political and athletic influence now spreads beyond Washington. At a satellite gym in Moscow, 12 members of the Russian Parliament are training with two students of Mr. Rhee's.

Already, he is planning for the future.

"Next year," he said, "U.S. vs. Russia."

Call it Kayo at the Kremlin.

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