Popular politicians like Barack Obama, Sarah Palin, Joe Lieberman, Mitt Romney and others have helped shatter old racial, gender and religious barriers to seeking high office, but one group of Americans remains dramatically under-represented among the electoral elite: fat people. Some 68% of American adults are overweight and more than 30% are obese, but none of the serious presidential contenders in recent years has struggled with weight issues. In 2008, in fact, Mike Huckabee made a point of trumpeting his own loss of more than a hundred pounds as one of his qualifications for office, and his supporters understood that his ability to keep off the weight demonstrated his firm character and self-control.
In the past, American voters cheerfully supported candidates of size: Grover Cleveland weighed 250 pounds when he won his first term in 1884, and even more at the time of his second term in 1892. During his presidency (1909-1913), William Howard Taft (who stood 6’2”) tipped the scales at 332 pounds. In this fitness-obsessed, media-driven age no comparably fleshly figure could possibly win the presidency. In fact, overweight has helped to deflate national campaigns for such dynamic figures and gifted orators as Newt Gingrich and Bill Bennett. It’s no accident that George W. Bush and Barack Obama, for all their other differences, are both gym rats and exercise nuts—examples of remarkably robust health with trim, athletic physiques.
In the current Senate, at least 30 of the one hundred Senators would have to be obese, and most of them visibly overweight, in order to represent the nation at large. As it is, however, nearly all the members of the “world’s greatest deliberative body” are svelte and trim. The late Ted Kennedy was, of course, a notable exception, but he won election as an athletic 30-year-old and frequently participated in “fat farm” summer retreats to try to keep his weight under control; he managed to lose 40 pounds to prepare for his presidential challenge to the slender Jimmy Carter in 1980.
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