Amidst reports that Tim Pawlenty’s former staffers and fundraisers are hoping that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie joins the Republican presidential race, it occurred to me that there has never been a fat American president in my lifetime.
Not that Christie even has any interest in running for the White House (yet) -- he has enough on his plate -- what with New Jersey’s various fiscal and economic crises.
But if Christie did announce that he wanted to run for president (say, in either in 2012 or 2016), would his obesity preclude him from winning?
Just last month, Christie was rushed to the hospital after complaining he had trouble breathing. He was later released and said he was fine. Not only is Christie dangerously overweight, but he also suffers from asthma – and he’s only 49 years old.
None of this generates much confidence.
To his credit, Christie has been candid and cheerful about his obvious girth.
I weigh too much because I eat too much, he once told reporters. And I eat some bad things too.
He also told CNN: I'm really struggling, been struggling for a long time with it [weight problem], and I know that it would be better for my kids if I got it more under control. And so I do feel a sense of guilt at times about that.”
However, from a purely legislative and ideological view, Christie has become wildly popular among fiscal conservatives across the country for slashing state spending to cut the budget deficit and for taking a hard stance against unions.
But no matter how accomplished he becomes in his political career, it's hard to believe that the American people would ever elect a fat man as president – particularly in this era of 24-hour cable television and Internet that has swamped our pop culture.
Consider the recent slew of U.S. presidents: Barack Obama (tall, slender, no obvious health issues, aside from a one-time smoking habit); George W. Bush (one-time partier and drinker transformed himself into a lean, strong health nut and obsessive jogger and skydiver); Bill Clinton (despite his craving for fast food and some weight problems, he generally looked very good on camera); George H. W. Bush (tall, sleek, athletic former war hero); Ronald Reagan (despite his advanced age and dyed hair, Reagan was in exceptionally good health and still retained much of his Hollywood leading-man looks while in the White House).
If any of these aforementioned chief executives were as heavy as Christie, they might not have gotten out of the primaries. The TV camera is cruel and merciless – candidates still get insulted and jeered at by the public and media for any physical imperfection as it is (Obama’s ears, Richard Nixon’s ski-slope nose and permanent five o’clock shadow, Jimmy Carter’s too-large teeth, etc.).
What would they do to Christie?
Chris Matthews of MSNBC has already insulted Christie for his weight. During their bitter gubernatorial race in 2009, Democratic opponent John Corzine ran ads explicitly mocking Christie's weight.
And here’s the most ironic thing: Christie would actually be a perfect symbol for this country since obesity is rising at alarming levels.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in every state in the country at least 20 percent of adults are obese (in Mississippi, the rate is 34 percent). And these numbers have been rising for years – Christie is merely part of a phenomenon that has been brewing for decades, as a result of too much junk food, too little exercise and too much of sitting in front of a TV set or computer.
A colleague of mine informed me that the last U.S. president who was genuinely obese was a fellow named William Howard Taft, who weighed in at 335 pounds. He occupied the White House during 1909-1913…. about forty years before televisions became mass-produced, seventy years before cable television; and ninety years before the emergence of the Internet.
Like Christie, Taft would have zero chance of getting elected today.