People have been making presidential fat jokes since the dawn of the republic. John Adams was called “His Rotundity.” Grover Cleveland was called “The Buxom Buffalonian.” William Howard Taft once went for a swim as two friends stood watching at the water’s edge. They were preparing to dive in until one of them quipped, “Perhaps we’d better wait. The president is using the ocean.” True story.But seriously, folks, girth is no laughing matter. And much of the commentary about Chris Christie’s weight is trivial. All too often, it’s framed as a cosmetic issue (who’d want to look at a fat president for eight years?), a character issue (a guy who eats too much is slothful and undisciplined), or a moral issue (he’d be a bad role model for our junk-guzzling kids).This is actually way more important. This is a health issue. Health issues matter. We know now, long after the fact, that JFK covered up his serious maladies when he ran for president, and we know now that he was often debilitated with back pain while on on the job – perhaps to the nation’s detriment. (He was in bad shape during his ’61 summit meeting with the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.) Whether it’s about weight or other physicalities, candidate health is grist for the public domain.And if Christie ever does deign to decide, once and for all, that he is indeed joining the race (update: he’s not; see bottom of post), his weight needs to be discussed in health terms alone. That should be the standard for any seriously overweight candidate. The problem is not whether a fat chief executive would look good on TV; the problem is whether he would be sufficiently healthy to handle the world’s most stressful job. Debating that issue is in the national interest.Anyone happen to remember that Christie had trouble breathing just three months ago, and that he had to be hospitalized? This was because of his asthma. And his weight makes his asthma worse. When he left the hospital, he said so himself: “The weight exacerbates everything…If I weighed less, I’d be healthier.” Yeah, no kidding. As respiratory experts point out, the diaphragm helps a person breathe normally. But when excessive weight presses on that sheet of muscle, a person can’t breathe normally.And asthma is hardly the worst potential consequence. Doctors have long been warning about the health hazards of obesity; the statistics state that a person who is 40 percent overweight is twice as likely to die prematurely than a person of normal weight. A person with Christie’s physical profile is at heightened risk for coronary heart disease, stroke, diabetes, gallbladder disease, osteoarthritis (which particularly affects the knees, hips, and lower back joints), the aforementioned asthma, and sleep apnea (when a slumberer briefly stops breathing). The latter condition can also cause daytime sleepiness (Taft was notorious for dozing off during Csbinet meetings) and even heart failure. Meanwhile, the National Cancer Institute says that obesity increases the risk of cancers that originate in the colon, kidney, and esophagus.”Girthers” trivialize the weight issue when they focus on the frivolous. The other night, David Letterman warned that if Christie became president, he would invade the IHOP pancake chain; the other day, commentator Michael Kinsley wrote that Christie is “just too fat” and that he shouldn’t be president until he masters the self-discipline of a diet. But those kinds of remarks simply make it easier for Christie’s defenders to dismiss all Girthers out of hand. Witness New York Times columnist Frank Bruni, who wrote last Sunday: “Downgrade Christie for his truculent style. Reject him for his limited experience. But don’t dwell on his heft. Girth doesn’t equal character.”Girth is synonymous with health risk, however. I actually hoped that Christie would join this race – he would have been a significant upgrade over the current motley crew – but out of necessity his physical fitness would have warranted full and frank examination. If the GOP race is open in 2016, we may be revisiting all this.And maybe Christie would welcome the scrutiny – for political reasons alone. After all, the American Heart Association says that 34 percent of American adults are obese. That’s 75 million voters right there. And don’t we always pine for a president who is truly One of Us?
One quick comment on the flap concerning Rick Perry and the hunting camp with the racist name:
In frequent conservative parlance, places like Texas are hailed as “the real America,” while regions like the Northeast are maligned as out of the mainstream. I’ll simply say this: In our contemporary post-civil rights movement era, you’d have to look long and hard in my home region for any camp, park, or preserve that bears a name like “Niggerhead.”
And now that Christie says he’s really finally definitively out (“the no never changed”), Mitt Romney would be wise to serenade doleful Republicans with a famous circa 1970 song by Steven Stills:
If you can’t be with the one you love/ Love the one you’re with.
——-Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1