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.
With all the emphasis on our elected representatives “looking more like America,” it’s surprising that no candidate has attempted a direct appeal to the overweight majority. Even Chris Christie, the popular jumbo-sized governor of New Jersey, seemed more defensive than assertive about his life-long weight problems. His Democratic opponent, scrawny jogger Jon Corzine, even aired some ads showing his portly opponent struggling to get out of a car, making obesity an open issue in the campaign. Eventually, Christie came up with an effective line to deal with such attacks at a time of big deficits and bloated budgets in the garden state. “Better a fat governor and a lean budget,” he declared, “than a lean governor and a fat budget”. Christie’s soaring popularity as he stands up to special interests and slashes spending may make him the Great Fat Hope among political porkers.
In a nation where every disadvantaged minority clamors for more prominent representation, some candidates of girth will eventually break through at the highest levels of national politics. In other fields of endeavor, extra poundage hardly counts as an insurmountable obstacle, as figures as varied as Oprah Winfrey, Rush Limbaugh, Ruben Stoddard, Michael Moore, Rosie O’Donnell and David Ortiz amply demonstrate.
In a sense, we shun heavy-weight politicians because unhealthful behavior has replaced immoral conduct as our most visible and comfortably denounced form of self-destructiveness. We can argue endlessly about what forms of sexual expression constitute unacceptable indulgence (though we’ve reached unanimous disapproval on the likes of John Edwards or Jesse James), but we instantly, easily agree that obesity remains indefensible. We similarly rush to abjure smoking – which is why President Obama so carefully hides his cigarette habit. In the past, when nearly all Americans aspired to a traditional family life with a white picket fence and adorable dog, we elevated politicians who seemed (like John Kennedy, to all appearances) to personify our highest ideals and desires. Today, we feel much less certain about the proper path for intimate arrangements (with 40% of all births occurring out of wedlock) but we know what we want in terms of fitness and a slender body-build. No matter how eloquent or accomplished a fat candidate may seem. In today’s superficial and judgmental world few parents will say they want their children to follow his example.