Steve Chapman

Politicians in or seeking major offices, of course, tend to be reasonably trim. We haven't had a barrel-shaped president since William Howard Taft, who weighed over 300 pounds. But a generous silhouette was never the presidential ideal. When one White House visitor met 260-lb. Grover Cleveland, the man blurted, "Well, you're a whopper!"

With more and more voters afflicted with weight problems, though, the political environment will probably become more accommodating to large candidates. Our standards of what is acceptable are changing. During last year's campaign, some voters even reacted to Barack Obama's lean physique by raising the question Walter Mondale asked about Gary Hart in the 1984 Democratic presidential race: "Where's the beef?"

The Sunday Times of London found it telling that after publicly declining a slice of cake, Obama lost the Pennsylvania primary. New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd carped that he could lose votes for being "too prissy about food." Christie is immune to such political hazards.

In the old days, low-fat individuals could flatter themselves that they deserved credit for being that way. But it's now clear that obesity owes a lot to biology and environment. Some people are genetically prone to excess weight, and some are not.

Lots of heavy folks work very hard to lose weight, without success, or else lose it only to gain it back. Their bodies, hard-wired for famine survival, don't want to be skinny. Some people are thin because they eat sparsely and exercise fanatically, but most are just lucky. So New Jersey voters are probably not going to take Corzine's figure as a symptom of virtue.

In the future, given the changing shape of the electorate, a little extra flesh could be a political asset, if not a necessity. But regardless of who wins, I'm willing to bet this will be the last time a politician is rash enough to mock an opponent's weight. When Corzine raised that issue, he bit off more than he could chew.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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