Inside the Black Belt Way Inside the Beltway

One pre-dawn Washington ritual in the House of Representatives gym ends this week just as another marks its 45th year.

Former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel returns to his native Chicago to run for mayor. Emanuel is a workout fanatic. And beginning with his time in Congress, Emanuel made regular, early-morning pilgrimages to the House gym in the basement of the Rayburn building.

You won't spot Emanuel around there much any more. But you can catch Tae Kwon Do Grandmaster Jhoon Rhee there most mornings around 6:30.

For 45 years, the 79-year-old Rhee has driven to the Capitol before sunrise three days a week to teach martial arts and self defense to Members of Congress.

350 lawmakers have studied under Rhee. Many attained the level of Black Belt. Current Members of Congress who have been Rhee's students include Reps. Gene Taylor (D-MS), Gregory Meeks (D-NY), John Adler (D-NJ), Earl Pomeroy (D-ND), Mike McIntyre (D-NC), Pete Hoekstra (R-MI), Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) and Jesse Jackson, Jr. (D-IL). Rhee taught Vice President Biden when he served in the Senate. Other high-profile students include House Speakers Newt Gingrich (R-GA) and Tom Foley (D-WA) as well as the late Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK).

Many of Rhee's former students gathered in the Cannon Caucus Room late this week to mark Rhee's 45 years of teaching lawmakers.

"I had no choice but to come," said Hoekstra. "He told me if you don't come, you will be a board the next time I see you."

Many attended the reception to hear former Reps. Bob Livingston (R-LA) and Katherine Harris (R-FL) talk about Rhee's dedication to teaching lawmakers. And in typical Congressional fashion, there was lots of speechifying. But most came to see Rhee execute some of his martial arts feats.

"We've had enough words. Let's see the deeds," said former Rep. Toby Roth (R-WI).

Rhee's physique belies his age. He stands 5'6" and weighs 140 lbs, boasting a stout chest and angular shoulders. His body tapers to his waist. Rhee could pass for someone in his early 50s.

"Jhoon Rhee is like the people in ‘The Event,'" said former-Rep. Dick Swett (D-NH), referring to a group of humanoids in the new, NBC drama. "They do not age. (Rhee's) one of them."Each morning, Rhee does 1,000 sit-ups and 400 pushups. When he stretches, Rhee sits with his legs splayed into a "V" and touches his chest to the floor.

"If you follow my instructions, everyone can do that in one year," Rhee said.

He transfixed the crowd when he crawled down on the floor to rifle through 103 pushups in 60 seconds. Rhee trumped that by breaking two boards with a front-kick as he stood on his other foot. While balancing a glass of water on his head.

"If I can balance the water, Congress might balance the budget," Rhee said, drawing laughter.

Today, thousands of martial arts schools dot the U.S. landscape. Most teaching Tae Kwon Do, a Korean discipline, which means "the art of the hand and the foot."

But martial arts weren't always so prominent in American culture. At least until Rhee came to the U.S. in 1956.

"I fought the Korean war side by side American soldiers who came to defend my motherland," Rhee said in an interview. "That touched me. I wanted to pay back with what I do best: Tae Kwon Do."

Rhee moved to Washington and opened a Tae Kwon Do academy on K Street downtown, long before practicing martial arts was in vogue. Many credit Rhee with introducing the sport to the U.S. as he trained with luminaries like Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris, Muhammad Ali and Tony Robbins.

Rhee took Tae Kwon Do to Congress in 1965.

That year, a mugger jumped the late-Rep. James Cleveland (R-NH) one night as he walked near the Capitol. The story hit the papers and Rhee phoned Cleveland.

"I told him if he would take Tae Kwon Do, he'd never get mugged again," Rhee said.

Cleveland invited Rhee to his office for a demonstration.

Rhee says Cleveland didn't stick with martial arts too long. But shortly afterwards, Rhee organized a Congressional Tae Kwon Do club. Original members included the late Rep. Silvio Conte (R-MA) along with Sens. Milton Young (R-ND) and Joseph Montoya (D-NM). In fact, a 1974 picture hanging in a prominent Senate passageway depicts Young and several unidentified senators practicing punches in what's billed as the Senate "Karate Club."

"When they are healthy and more alert, they can do their job better," Rhee said of teaching martial arts to lawmakers.

Members of Congress keep crazy schedules, jetting all over the country and racing back to Washington for hearings, votes and fundraisers. So the only time many lawmakers have for exercise is early in the morning. Which is why Rhee holds class at 6:30 am in the House gym.

"They get up at 6:00 to learn," said former Rep. Tom Davis (R-VA), Rhee's former Congressman. "That's a huge commitment for a Member of Congress. That says a lot."

Rhee was known on Capitol Hill long before he became a local Washington, DC icon. In 1972, his TV commercials developed a cult-like status. Nearly everyone who lived in Washington at the time remembers the ads.

His daughter Meme and son Chun were barely school age. At the end of the spots, Meme looks into the camera and says "Nobody bothers me!" Chun follows suit by exclaiming "Nobody bothers me, either!"

Chun then winks at the camera.

"I was going to say ‘Nobody bothers me' at the end of the commercials," Rhee said. "But then I thought someone might try to jump me."

So he enlisted his kids.

Rhee says he believes people remember the ads because the kids were cute. In fact, Chun is now in his early-40s and runs the Jhoon Rhee Tae Kwon Do School in the Washington suburbs.

Rhee says he plans to keep teaching. And wants to hold another big blowout on Capitol Hill when he turns 100. And reprise his demonstration of board breaks, pushups and splits. And he plans to keep teaching lawmakers martial arts in the House gym in the wee-hours of the morning.

"If I wanted to do this for publicity, I would do this for four years. Not 45 years," Rhee said.