Commentary Magazine


Topic: obesity

Good News for Christie: The Taft Precedent

Chris Christie faces some formidable obstacles in his path to the presidency. There are those who think his abrasive personality will ultimately do him in during the heat of a primary or general election campaign. Others point to the hostility with which many conservatives view him and say his post-hurricane embrace of President Obama will never be forgiven on the right. But others say that the real problem for Christie is his weight. Some speculate as to whether his health will allow him to survive the grueling task of running for president. And in an age in which body image seems to mean more to Americans than just about anything, it’s tough to imagine the country electing someone who can only be described as obese rather than just overweight.

Seen in that light, Christie’s fans may not have been pleased to see the New York Times focus attention today on the only real precedent for a Christie presidency: William Howard Taft. The paper ran a feature about research into the dieting methods of our 27th president. As the paper reports, Taft, whose weight fluctuated between 255-355 pounds during his career in national office, used modern dieting methods including a low-fat diet that had sporadic success. He also kept a food diary and counted calories in a manner that might seem familiar to contemporary Americans. But in the end, Taft stayed fat and was the butt of a lot jokes in his own time, not to mention stories about him getting stuck in his jumbo-size bathtub. But as much as Taft (who is remembered as much for his weight problem as for the achievements of a long and varied career in public service) is not exactly the person that Christie would want voters to think about when considering his potential presidential candidacy, there is another side to this story that actually works to his advantage.

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Chris Christie faces some formidable obstacles in his path to the presidency. There are those who think his abrasive personality will ultimately do him in during the heat of a primary or general election campaign. Others point to the hostility with which many conservatives view him and say his post-hurricane embrace of President Obama will never be forgiven on the right. But others say that the real problem for Christie is his weight. Some speculate as to whether his health will allow him to survive the grueling task of running for president. And in an age in which body image seems to mean more to Americans than just about anything, it’s tough to imagine the country electing someone who can only be described as obese rather than just overweight.

Seen in that light, Christie’s fans may not have been pleased to see the New York Times focus attention today on the only real precedent for a Christie presidency: William Howard Taft. The paper ran a feature about research into the dieting methods of our 27th president. As the paper reports, Taft, whose weight fluctuated between 255-355 pounds during his career in national office, used modern dieting methods including a low-fat diet that had sporadic success. He also kept a food diary and counted calories in a manner that might seem familiar to contemporary Americans. But in the end, Taft stayed fat and was the butt of a lot jokes in his own time, not to mention stories about him getting stuck in his jumbo-size bathtub. But as much as Taft (who is remembered as much for his weight problem as for the achievements of a long and varied career in public service) is not exactly the person that Christie would want voters to think about when considering his potential presidential candidacy, there is another side to this story that actually works to his advantage.

Though Americans tend to prefer handsome and fit presidents (a description that fits most but not all of those who both preceded and followed Taft into the White House), those who question whether Christie can take the stress of the trials of the presidency, need to remember that Taft actually lived to be 73, a ripe old age for someone who was born in 1857. If Big Bill could live a full and vigorous life until he died while serving as Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, there’s no reason why Christie, who has the advantage of the better medical care available to Americans a century later, can’t do just as well if not better.

As the Times points out, had he lived today, Taft would have had the option of weight-loss surgery (a procedure that Christie underwent earlier this year) which might have helped him. But aside from that, he would be in the same position of having to cope with the travails of diets and self-monitoring.

But as Taft’s life proves, the notion that obesity shortens life spans may be a statistical meme but it is not a certain death sentence. For all of his obsessing over his weight and the embarrassment over the attention it brought him, Taft lived a full life, playing golf and being involved in useful work that he cared about. His post-presidential career was especially satisfying since it led to his joining the Supreme Court, a post that had always been the summit of his ambition. The decision to run for president was something that had more to do with the wishes of his friend and predecessor Theodore Roosevelt (though once in the White House he broke with TR and lost his bid for re-election because Roosevelt ran as a third party candidate) than his own desires. He hated his time as president.

Christie clearly revels in the work of running a large, complex state like New Jersey (a post he is in no danger of losing this fall as his current lead over his Democratic opponent is at 24 percentage points in the latest poll) as well as in the political combat that comes with it and would likely thrive in the White House as well.

However, the real challenge would not so much lie in being president as in running for the job. Unlike 1908 when Taft could follow the practice of staying home and campaigning from his front porch while surrogates were detailed to do the dirty work of hitting the hustings and making the case for his election, Christie would be forced to engage in the two-year-long sprint that is the current method candidates must endure. But given the large number of Americans who face the same problem today (due to the availability of food and health care, far more Americans are obese today than they were in 1908 and 1912) he could count on a lot of sympathy for his weight struggles than might overcome any tendency to reject a fat president.

We can’t predict Christie’s future health any more than Taft’s doctors could say how long he would live more than a century ago. Nor can we be certain of the political forecast. But the odds are, if Christie is not going to win in 2016 it will not be due to his weight.

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Christie’s Weight Is Actually an Asset

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie seemed to have revived the discussion about his weight this week with his humorous appearance on the David Letterman show by pulling a donut out of his pocket. Yesterday, Christie appeared to take a more serious approach to the question of his health, admitting that his doctor has told him his luck may be running out but insisted that any possible problems won’t interfere with his ability to do his job.

Christie is cruising to re-election in New Jersey this year and is on the short list of likely Republican candidates for president in 2016. But there are people who believe his ambitions will be derailed because, as his doctor reminds him, obesity is the sort of problem that will eventually catch up to anyone who suffers from it. Some think there is no way a man in Christie’s condition can possibly withstand the rigors of a presidential run. Others may think that even if he survives that ordeal, someone that heavy can’t possibly be elected since ours is a culture that extols fitness and denigrates fat people.

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New Jersey Governor Chris Christie seemed to have revived the discussion about his weight this week with his humorous appearance on the David Letterman show by pulling a donut out of his pocket. Yesterday, Christie appeared to take a more serious approach to the question of his health, admitting that his doctor has told him his luck may be running out but insisted that any possible problems won’t interfere with his ability to do his job.

Christie is cruising to re-election in New Jersey this year and is on the short list of likely Republican candidates for president in 2016. But there are people who believe his ambitions will be derailed because, as his doctor reminds him, obesity is the sort of problem that will eventually catch up to anyone who suffers from it. Some think there is no way a man in Christie’s condition can possibly withstand the rigors of a presidential run. Others may think that even if he survives that ordeal, someone that heavy can’t possibly be elected since ours is a culture that extols fitness and denigrates fat people.

Questions about his health should be left to the doctors, but I think anyone who believes this issue will stop him is making a mistake. Even if Christie appears to be the opposite of what marketing people would consider ideal in terms of personal image, his weight is an important asset.

In response to questions about how anyone who looked like he did could be elected president, Abraham Lincoln is supposed to have said that if all the ugly people voted for him, he’d win easily. In 21st-century America, that is probably also true of overweight citizens. Obesity is spoken of as not so much a problem anymore as it is an epidemic, with First Lady Michelle Obama treating it as one of her pet causes. That may lead some to think that only someone as skinny as her husband or as fit as Mitt Romney is a plausible presidential candidate. But though he may not be anyone’s romantic ideal, Christie’s weight not only humanizes a politician who might otherwise come across as a bully, it also gives him an everyman sort of appeal that is political gold.

It should be remembered that one of the turning points in his first campaign for governor came when incumbent Jon Corzine mocked him with ads talking about Christie “throwing his weight around.” Corzine’s handlers may have thought this was a clever way to make his opponent look unsuitable for high office, but it also made a tough guy prosecutor appear more like the average Joe. Given his propensity for cutting remarks at the expense of anyone who gets in his way, the discussion of his weight gives credence to Christie’s attempts to put himself forward as someone who understands the problems of ordinary voters. It also allows him to display his sense of humor with self-deprecating jokes directed at his own weight. Without it, he could easily come across as a grim, humorless type only interested in dismissing if not running over his critics.

It may be natural to assume that only candidates as attractive or fit as Obama and Romney have a chance in 2016. Predictions that we will never elect another president as heavy as the immense William Howard Taft may also be correct. But a candidate who was that heavy but who nevertheless showed himself able to keep up the pace and was also able to joke about it ought not to be dismissed. It could be counter-intuitive to think that any overweight or unattractive person could be elected president in our image-obsessed media culture. But likeability is always going to be more important than a candidate’s waistline. Talking about struggles with weight is something that many, if not most, Americans identify with more easily than the obsession with physical fitness that is part of the discussion about others, particularly Paul Ryan. Oddly enough, it may be his weight that makes Christie’s relentless and often graceless pugnacity tolerable.

If Christie is smart, he’ll take his doctor’s advice and do whatever it takes to reduce his weight and raise his chances for a longer life span. But for all the problems the extra pounds bring him, they also are an important part of his charm and ability to connect with voters.

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Bloomberg’s War on Individual Freedom

Today New York City’s Board of Health approved a ban on the sale of large sodas and sugary drinks in many establishments. It is, as the New York Times pointed out, the first such law enacted in the country. The intent of this initiative pursued by Mayor Michael Bloomberg is to combat the epidemic of obesity in this country. But good intentions have always paved the road to hell or, more important, the path to tyranny. Bloomberg is right to say that New Yorkers ought to be watching their diets. He’s dead wrong in attempting to use the ubiquitous power of the state to impose his ideas about what they should be eating and drinking on them.

The mayor has said he doesn’t want to take away anyone’s right to drink as much soda as they want, but rather his goal is, as he said on the “Today” show, to “force you to understand” that what you are doing is wrong. But at the heart of the latest instance of the mayor’s attempt to become New York’s nanny-in-chief, is an idea put forward in the New York Times by one of his measure’s supporters. As filmmaker Casey Neistat wrote on Saturday, the issue is “that some people just aren’t responsible enough to feed themselves.” That is exactly the frame of reference of Bloomberg on this and all such measures where he and other do-gooders seek to govern the lives of fellow citizens. It is not that they oppose individual freedom per se but that they think the rest of us are too sick or too stupid to be allowed to exercise it freely.

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Today New York City’s Board of Health approved a ban on the sale of large sodas and sugary drinks in many establishments. It is, as the New York Times pointed out, the first such law enacted in the country. The intent of this initiative pursued by Mayor Michael Bloomberg is to combat the epidemic of obesity in this country. But good intentions have always paved the road to hell or, more important, the path to tyranny. Bloomberg is right to say that New Yorkers ought to be watching their diets. He’s dead wrong in attempting to use the ubiquitous power of the state to impose his ideas about what they should be eating and drinking on them.

The mayor has said he doesn’t want to take away anyone’s right to drink as much soda as they want, but rather his goal is, as he said on the “Today” show, to “force you to understand” that what you are doing is wrong. But at the heart of the latest instance of the mayor’s attempt to become New York’s nanny-in-chief, is an idea put forward in the New York Times by one of his measure’s supporters. As filmmaker Casey Neistat wrote on Saturday, the issue is “that some people just aren’t responsible enough to feed themselves.” That is exactly the frame of reference of Bloomberg on this and all such measures where he and other do-gooders seek to govern the lives of fellow citizens. It is not that they oppose individual freedom per se but that they think the rest of us are too sick or too stupid to be allowed to exercise it freely.

The justification presented for this unprecedented government interference in both commerce and individual behavior is that the public and the government bear much of the cost of the illnesses that derive from obesity. But the logic of this argument breaks down when you realize that such reasoning would allow government to interfere in just about any sphere of private behavior including procreation. That is exactly the point that the Communist regime in Beijing has given in defense of its tyrannical one-child policy and the forced abortions that are performed in order to enforce it.

One needn’t paint the billionaire mayor as a would-be totalitarian to understand that a government that can tell you how much soda to drink or fat to eat because the sugar in your super-sized cup will eventually cost it something is one that can, in theory, tell you to do or not do just anything else you can think of.

America’s grand experiment with do-gooder government early in the 20th century was no less well intentioned than that undertaken by Bloomberg and his food and drink police. Indeed, the prohibition of the sale of alcohol addressed a far more urgent health problem facing the nation then (and now) as well as one that cost it, even in that era of small government, a lot of money. But Americans soon learned that legislating personal choices in such a manner is always a colossal mistake that tells us more about our faults than our virtues.

Personal choices, such as the consumption of sugar, do not fall under any reasonable definition of government responsibility. However serious our obesity problem may be, it cannot be solved by government fiat. Indeed, it isn’t likely that there will be a single less fat person in New York because of Bloomberg’s power play. But there will be a little less individual freedom in the city and elsewhere if his noxious idea spreads. The issue here is freedom, not sugar or obesity. The damage from this infringement on the fundamental values that are the foundation of democracy will hurt us far more than the extra few ounces of soda that the mayor begrudges New York’s citizens.

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