Over the past 35 years, by Jhoon Rhee’s estimate, more than 250 congressmen have come to him for martial-arts training. In the same period, about two dozen federal lawmakers have earned black belts under his watch. And while breaking boards with these power brokers, Rhee gives them the key to happiness. “Never make a mistake knowingly,” he says. “I tell all my students that is my definition of human perfection.”
Alas, the master’s moralizing doesn’t always take. Many of those who have kicked and grunted through Rhee’s Capitol Hill sessions, including some of his most infamously imperfect pupils, attended a downtown reception in his honor last week. There was Bob Livingston, whose private indiscretions took him from being the Republican Party’s unopposed nominee to replace Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (another Rhee student) to just another former congressman during the Clinton impeachment debate. At the party, Livingston called Rhee “one of the greatest Americans I know.” Mike Espy, the onetime Mississippi representative best known for becoming an ex-secretary of agriculture once word got out that he’d allegedly copped some NFL playoff tickets on the job, also made an appearance to fete his former teacher.
“Nobody’s perfect,” Rhee says. And no matter what you read in the papers, Rhee adds, he’ll vouch for the character of Livingston—one of the black belts—Gingrich, and Espy any day.
The soiree, held at the Motion Picture Association of America’s posh I Street digs, coincided with the official launch of jhoonrhee.com, a Web site that Rhee and his partners (a group that includes Livingston and MPAA honcho Jack Valenti) hope will become “the world’s dominant martial-arts Web-based community.”
In this town, Rhee has been the dominant name in martial arts going way back to the days when everything done with robes and kicks was called karate. (Distinctions too complicated to get into exist between karate, a Japanese art; tae kwon do, which is native to Rhee’s home country of Korea; and kung fu, a Chinese discipline.) Now a very fit and very content 68, Rhee was already a master in tae kwon do when he immigrated to the U.S. in the ’50s. But the American dream that lured him here involved an entirely different type of unarmed grappling.
“I was watching an American movie on television when I was a small child, and I saw a blond woman for the first time,” Rhee says. “I decided right then, I’m going to marry a blond woman someday. So I had to move to the U.S.”
His initial stateside stop in the quest for a blonde was at a well-known outpost of the species, the University of Texas at Austin. There, Rhee studied engineering and paid for his classes by teaching tae kwon do to students on a freelance basis.
Still lacking a degree and a blonde, Rhee left Texas in 1962, when an Army colonel promised him a full-time instructional gig at the Pentagon. That job offer disappeared once Rhee got to the area, so he settled into an apartment in Arlington and scraped together $400 for two months’ rent for office space on K Street. He had his first school.
“I wasn’t going to get discouraged just because there was no job,” Rhee says. “I came here to teach, so I was going to teach. When I opened up my business, I was janitor, instructor, secretary, everything.”
He gave up the blonde fantasy and married a Korean gal he’d met here. His first brush with politicos came in 1965, after he read in the Washington Post that a congressman, Rep. James Cleveland of New Hampshire, had been mugged. Rhee called up Cleveland to say that if the congressman had taken a tae kwon do class, he wouldn’t have suffered such an indignity. Cleveland invited Rhee to the Hill and had some fellow lawmakers and a Life magazine photographer attend their meeting. Soon enough, Rhee was teaching three days a week in the Capitol basement. To this day, he keeps that schedule when Congress is in session.
Because of his Capitol connection, Rhee met with then-President Lyndon Johnson and future President George Bush, who dubbed him the 721st “Point of Light” after leaving the White House. He also participated in USO tours through his homeland, where he and black-belted congressmen put on martial-arts shows for the troops. The political ties brought him to Valenti, a onetime assistant to Johnson, as well as to Bruce Lee and Muhammad Ali. He worked with Ali at the fighter’s Deer Park, Pa., training camp before the Thrilla in Manila in 1975. The Greatest credited Rhee with helping him develop a new jab, dubbed “the Accu-Punch” by Ali, that split open tomato can Richard Dunn the next year in Munich.
The Capitol classes have always been bipartisan. In 1975, when tensions between the parties were still high as a result of Watergate, Rhee organized a battle royale pitting his Republican students against his Democrats (including D.C.’s delegate at the time, Walter Fauntroy) at the D.C. Armory for charity. Though Rhee calls himself a Republican—Democrats are too “soft on communism” for him—he judged the match a draw.
His private teaching operation continued to thrive. By 1986, Rhee owned 10 schools and a business that manufactured martial-arts apparel. His brushes with greatness and the martial-arts boom sparked by the Kung Fu television series (starring David Carradine) surely helped Rhee’s name recognition around these parts.
But nothing did as much as the advertising campaign Rhee devised in 1970. Even folks who wouldn’t know a backfist from a backfin know Rhee as the guy behind the television commercials where a little Asian kid with a big, toothless grin bellows, “Nobody bother me!”—which is quite possibly the most pervasive and effective catch phrase ever produced locally. The star of those ads was Rhee’s son, Chun, who was only 3 years old. Rhee also used his then-2-year-old daughter, MiMi, as a spokeskid.
“I came up with that line myself,” Rhee said. “But I thought if I’m in the commercial saying, ‘Nobody bother me!’ somebody might try to pick on me if they saw me on the street. So I put my children in it.” (Chun, now 33, owns and operates martial-arts schools in Falls Church and Alexandria. MiMi works for an Internet company in Los Angeles.)
When not on Capitol Hill, Rhee hosts motivational seminars and works out extensively on his own. The dot-com venture that now bears his name is important to Rhee, but not as important as his longevity and fitness. He does 1,000 pushups a day, every day, and holds one leg over his head whenever he watches television to stay limber.
Rhee thinks the training will help him meet his goals of having the body of a 21-year-old when he reaches the century mark and living to be 136. He hopes to embody his definition of perfection—the same one Livingston, Espy, and all his other Capitol Hill cronies couldn’t—by the end of his days.
“If I can stop yelling at my children, I’ll be perfect,” he says with a giggle. “I’m working on it.” —Dave McKenna