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.