Dana Milbank
Opinion writer May 10, 2011

There may be 8 million stories in the naked city, but few are as visually compelling as Aaron Schock’s.

The second-term Republican congressman from Illinois stripped down to his shorts for a photo spread for the latest issue of Men’s Health magazine, explaining to the “Today” show’s Matt Lauer that undressing for the glossy as “The Ripped Representative” would highlight how “individual choices” — such as having bulging pecs — can bring down health-care costs.

Dana Milbank writes about political theater in the nation’s capital. He joined the Post as a political reporter in 2000. View Archive

This didn’t play well in Peoria, where the county Republican chairman told Fox News that the local congressman should have used “more discretion.”

I disagree. In fact, I am hopeful that Schock has started a new trend.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus can go shirtless in Forbes magazine to illustrate his dedication to lean government. Ron Paul can display his skin for American Banker as evidence of his determination to strip the Fed of its powers.

Sen. Pat Leahy, from Vermont, can cozy up to his base by taking it off for Hoard’s Dairyman, and House Speaker John Boehner can reach out to allies by sharing his tanned torso with the readers of Cigar Aficionado and Wine Enthusiast.

Michele Bachmann, who has made some high-profile gaffes about the Founding Fathers, would be a natural to go au naturel in Real Simple. And to illustrate the effects of global warming, Sen. Barbara Boxer could take off her clothes for National Geographic.

Okay, maybe this isn’t such a good idea.

There are those who will say I am only jealous of the 29-year-old Schock and his perfectly sculpted body. To those people, I say: You have a point. Like Schock, I have six-pack abs, but mine come from drinking beer. (American Brewer Magazine: I am available for your June issue.)

Even discounting for my Schock envy, though, there is something disconcerting about the congressman serving himself up as beefcake. Once upon a time, lawmakers prided themselves on brainpower. But as Washington imports a culture of celebrity worship from Los Angeles and New York, the body politic has become more about brawn.

In the Senate, there’s Cosmopolitan centerfold Scott Brown. In the House, then-representative Chris Lee thought so much of his deltoids that the married congressman took a shirtless photo to attract a woman on CraigsList early this year. Across the aisle, Rep. Mary Bono Mack became a part of the fun earlier this year when the celebrity Web site Radar Online published a party photo showing a female campaign donor appearing to lick what Radar said was the congresswoman’s partially exposed breast.

Then there’s the group of male House members — Schock, Paul Ryan, Jeff Flake, Eric Cantor, Heath Shuler and others — who have managed to get articles about their group exercise routine published in The Post, the Wall Street Journal and various other publications. The office of Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), the House Republican whip, even supplied a photo of him in an action pose with P90X inventor Tony Horton (both clothed, thankfully).

Ryan celebrated the P90X workout program in a filmed interview with Politico. “I’m just kind of a workout guy,” Ryan explained. “I was actually a fitness trainer.” Ryan, who boasted that “I keep my body fat between 6 and 8 percent,” said his favored workout relies on “muscle confusion.”

But what’s going on here is a different type of “muscle confusion” — the confusion that a lawmaker is supposed to be an Adonis rather than a Pericles.

Presidents Kennedy, Ford and Reagan weren’t harmed by the occasional beach or pool photo, and Sarah Palin wasn’t undone by the surfacing of a college photo of her wearing a T-shirt that said “I may be broke but I’m not flat busted.” But the proper reaction — seen when paparazzi caught Bill and Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama on the beach — was annoyance and embarrassment. A politician’s flesh was supposed to be private — as when a naked Rahm Emanuel allegedly dressed down Rep. Eric Massa (who has since resigned over his “tickle fights”) in the showers of the House gym.

But now we have Schock, following the lead of Fox News’s Megyn Kelly (December GQ), undressing for the cover of Men’s Health (in the same spot Obama appeared a couple of years ago, in coat and tie).

“Want tricked-out traps? Dominating delts? Abs the size of a woman’s fist?” an accompanying article asks. If so, try “the Schock-Your-Body Workout.”

“When he strolls into a New York City studio for his photo shoot,” the magazine gushes, “he’s decked out in a form-fitting Zegna suit and tapered shirt that show off both his musculature and his fashion savvy.”

Nice duds. Too bad he took them off.

danamilbank@washpost.com