A little over 100 years ago, Seattle welcomed America's fattest president, William Howard Taft, with great enthusiasm: ribbons, parties and golf games. We saw presidential obesity up close and... it didn't seem to matter.
When Taft visited Seattle for the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition, he was almost 52 years old. He had been Secretary of War and Solicitor General. He served his presidential term, ran for re-election and lost, became a law professor at Yale and president of the American bar Association, and then served nearly a decade on the U.S Supreme Court. He died in his seventies. Fat, yes, but he had a distinguished career before, during and after his presidency.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is a Republican former prosecutor like Taft, and at 49, close to Taft's age when he was elected president in 1908. Much is being made of Christie's weight. Liberals, in particular, are making the too-fat-to-be-president arguments, often employing the rather shameless pretense that they're doing it out of concern for Christie, or for the kids.
Two recent editorials stand out. One by former Slate editor Michael Kinsley, a man who occasionally proves that even the smartest men have dumb ideas. He attacks Christie's weight by saying that it reflects the man's weakness, and therefore embodies America's own decadence. It therefore must be rejected. "Unfortunately," he writes, "the symbolism of Christie’s weight problem goes way past the issue of obesity itself":
It is just a too-perfect symbol of our country at the moment, with appetites out of control and discipline near zilch. And it’s not just symbolism. We don’t yet know much about Chris Christie. He certainly makes all the right noises about fiscal discipline and seems to have done well so far as governor of New Jersey. Perhaps Christie is the one to help us get our national appetites under control. But it would help if he got his own under control first.
This goes beyond the usual arguments that obesity is a health issue, or a genetics issue, or a complex array of treatable health concerns, and voices a kind of disdain for what it says about a person's moral values. It's not simply a disease or a difference but a moral indicator. A fat person lacks the character to be president. A fat person leads only with their weight, which defines them.
This, of course, is a kind of eugenical thinking at its worst. America can be led only by the fit and trim, people's whose body image fits what America needs. Of course, being over weight has nothing to do with ideology: there have been hefty people of all persuasions, from William Jennings Bryan's populism to Newt Gingrich's conservatism to Tip O'Neil's New Dealism to Ted Kennedy's liberalism to Winston Churchill's fight-them-on-the-beaches-ism. Some research even indicates that being fat might even be a political advantage.
But, if being fat is a handicap, ought other handicaps be automatically disqualifying? Did Franklin Roosevelt's crippled legs make him unworthy as a man who could lift us out of the Great Depression? Was John F. Kennedy's back pain disqualifying in his plea for America to get physically fit?
It is true that liberals were the early proponents of eugenics as a kind of progressive politics: the welfare state fared better if the weak were cut from the herd. But the ideas were also embraced by people with very bad ideas whose personal habits were hardly guaranteed right thinking. George W. Bush was, in my estimation, a lousy president, but he was physically fit. It is, however, often embraced by technocrats who view morality as correctable. Henry Ford was a famous proponent of eugenics, the man who perfected the assembly line.
The Washington Post's Eugene Robinson wrote a column also condemning Christie's weight. The argument always starts about health with a faux concern for the well-being of the person (or enemy) involved, but inevitably degenerates into the kind of righteous attitude that undercuts the affect of understanding. Under the headline "Chris Christie's Big Problem," which dog-whistles to readers that the writer is about to take on a tubby, Robinson argues that obesity is a public problem, the governor is "morbidly obese" (no cultural stigma in that term, is there?), and after acknowledging that controlling one's weight can be a very complicated issues, goes on to throw away all that complexity with this glib ending:
Politically, I disagree with Christie on almost everything. I’ll have plenty of opportunities to tell him why. Today, I’d just like to offer him a bit of unsolicited, nonpartisan, sincere advice: Eat a salad and take a walk.
Eat a salad. For anyone who is overweight and had received advice from a stranger (and I speak, full disclosure, as a fat person), that's the equivalent of a "screw you."
It's ironic to me that while being overweight is "looking like America," the liberal argument against being fat is to reject or marginalize "America" by calling gross, sick and morally weak. It also seems very American to me to try and reduce everyone's life to a statement made by their body — the mind, emotions, imagination, beliefs, moral compass, all subservient to looks and physical well-being. That's why we're a nation of plastic surgery, Barbie dolls, fad diets, American idols, and bullies.
Being fat isn't the same as being gay, but for most overweight people, especially women, it doesn't "get better,"in Dan Savage's phrase; it gets worse.
Anyone who has struggled with weight, even those who accept being heavier than the "norm" and are happy with it, are sensitive to the deep cultural issues around weight in this society. We carry a huge amount of moral baggage on our middles and hips. Certainly, a presidential candidate has to take the reality of that baggage into consideration, and the stresses of the Oval Office.
Still, there is no way Chris Christie's weight should be a defining factor for anyone but him. If it is a handicap, greater ones have been overcome by our leaders. Even if it were a moral failing, it is surely not the whole man.
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