Weighty Politics: Why Haven't We Seen Heavier Presidents?

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie Mel Evans/AP File Photo

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie emphasized this his decision to get weight-loss surgery had nothing to do with any future political ambitions. But it also highlights a reality of American presidential politics: There hasn’t been a significantly overweight president of the United States in nearly a century. It's hard to find even overweight presidential candidates.

Christie said he received lap band surgery over President’s Day Weekend because he was concerned about his long-term health. “I tried a whole bunch of other things that hadn’t worked,” he told reporters Tuesday. “It’s not a career issue for me, it’s a long-term health issue for me, and that’s the basis upon which I made the decision.”

But the many negative connotations society attaches to being overweight, from perceptions of attractiveness to assumptions about an individual’s health, carry over into politics. “We make unbelievable judgments in the blink of an eye,” says Democratic strategist Eric Adelstein.

While it’s impossible to know a person’s cholesterol level or blood pressure simply by looking at him or her, that doesn’t stop people from deducing how healthy a person is by his or her weight. And talking about a candidate’s health is fair game in a presidential contest, said Democratic media strategist Neil Oxman. “In a governor’s race, no one really cares. Your finger isn’t on the nuclear button.”

“Presidents have yearly physicals and their physicals are published – it’s a big deal,” said Oxman. “In a presidential campaign, it’s an issue in the sense of, do you want to vote for somebody for president who you’re worried about whether they can serve out a term?”

Image has also long played a major role in elections, from the days of Abraham Lincoln growing a beard to television viewers concluding a younger, rested John F. Kennedy won a 1960 presidential debate over Richard Nixon. This is especially true in presidential campaigns conducted in today’s oversaturated and instant media culture, where every move is scrutinized.

The most recent oversized president was President William Howard Taft, who didn’t shy away from talking about his weight. He weighed 340 lbs. at the end of his presidency, telling reporters he slimmed down to 270.8 lbs. 10 months after he left the White House.

Bill Clinton’s eating habits became an issue during his first run for president, but the concern wasn’t overwhelming.

Christie’s weight has been mentioned in political attacks before. A 2009 campaign ad by Jon Corzine alluded to Christie’s weight, stating that he “threw his weight around as U.S. Attorney.” It concluded with a slow-motion shot of Christie exiting a car.

Adelstein says people voicing health concerns about overweight candidates are actually using coded language.

“I don’t think voters say, ‘I’m not going to vote for him because he’s overweight and he’s going to have a heart attack.’ They didn’t vote against Reagan” when questions about his mental state were raised, Adelstein said. “I’m not saying [health] is irrelevant, but if you did a focus group and asked people to start talking about it, I think some of that language is a cover-up for not wanting to look superficial or judging someone because of their physicality.”

But criticizing a candidate’s weight is a difficult line of attack for an opponent to make without being perceived as a bully or insensitive -- particularly if the candidate has been public about the struggle to lose pounds.

“Other candidates doing a personal attack, even if it’s effective against that candidate, it could be the ‘murder-suicide’ effect – it will also hurt the person making the attack,” Republican media strategist John Brabender said.

There is a flipside to this, depending on how a candidate plays it. Struggling with weight isn’t a foreign issue for people – one-third of adult Americans are considered obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee lost more than 100 pounds, which he chronicled in a book and discussed during his 2008 presidential campaign. A weight-loss journey could further endear Christie to regular Americans: that this is a man who struggles with the same problems as they do.

“It makes him more real and believable, and frankly that’s been a big part of the charm of Chris Christie,” Brabender said. “That was the problem Romney had – he looked so much like central casting and wore suits so well and looked good and in shape, looked so much younger than he was – he looks like they got together and drew up a president. A lot of people felt they couldn’t relate to him.”

Oxman says he envisions a presidential campaign in which “you can turn a heavy person into a cultural icon and hero.”

Christie has taken various approaches to publicly address his weight. His size has been the theme of late night jokes. Christie tried to show he can laugh at himself, most memorably by eating a donut while appearing on David Letterman’s show. In February, a former White House physician said she was worried Christie would die in office if he were elected president -- to which plainspoken Christie responded that “she should shut up.”

Christie has previously said he’s in good health but that his doctor tells him “my luck is going to run out relatively soon.”

"If you talk to anybody in this room who has struggled with their weight, what they will tell you is that every month, every year there's a plan,” Christie said in February. “And so the idea that somehow I don't care about this, of course I care about it, and I'm making the best effort I can and sometimes I'm successful and other times I'm not.”

If he’s successful this time around, “it’s the great American story, the second chance, self-improvement, another lease on life,” said Adelstein. And what voter wouldn’t like that?

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