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Chris Christie And Other Weighty Issues

It would seem I was slightly ahead of the curve with my post yesterday asking whether Chris Christie was “too fat” to be President, because it’s become quite the topic of discussion among the pundits today. Over at The Washington Post for example, Eugene Robinson was out this morning with a column that essentially said that Christie needs to put down the doughnut and go for a walk:

Whether or not he lets himself be persuaded to run for president, Chris Christie needs to find some way to lose weight. Like everyone else, elected officials perform best when they are in optimal health. Christie obviously is not.

You could argue that this is none of my business, but I disagree. Christie’s problem with weight ceased being a private matter when he stepped into the public arena — and it’s not something you can fail to notice. Obesity is a national epidemic whose costs are measured not just in dollars and cents but also in lives. Christie’s weight is as legitimate an issue as the smoking habit hat President Obama says he has finally kicked.

Robinson was joined by Michael Kinsley, who if anything was even less civil in the manner in which he wrote about the issue:

Look, I’m sorry, but New Jersey Governor Chris Christie cannot be president: He is just too fat. Maybe, if he runs for president and we get to know him, we will overlook this awkward issue because we are so impressed with the way he stands up to teachers’ unions. But we shouldn’t overlook it — unless he goes on a diet and shows he can stick to it.

(…)

A presidential candidate should be judged on behavior and character, not just on policies — especially because the chance these days of any actual policies being enacted is slim. (Most of us, fortunately, aren’t judged this way — at least not in this life. But presidents are.)

Controlling what you eat and how much is not easy, and it’s harder for some people than for others. But it’s not as difficult as curing a chemical addiction. With a determined, disciplined effort, Christie could thin down, and he should — because the obesity epidemic is real and dangerous. And the president inevitably sets an example.

As with most people, Robinson and Kinsley are under the assumption that obesity is purely caused by irresponsible behavior — over-eating, lack of exercise, etc — and that someone who is obese is guilty of some kind of moral failing. As Ezra Klein points out, though, the medical evidence for that just isn’t there:

For decades now, we’ve known that obesity is linked to genetics. In one famous study attempting to separate behavior from biology, Danish researchers looked at a registry of adopted children to see whether their weight correlated with that of their biological parents or that of their adopted parents. Biology won out. “The two major findings of this study were that there was a clear relation between the body-mass index of biologic parents and the weight class of adoptees, suggesting that genetic influences are important determinants of body fatness; and that there was no relation between the body-mass index of adoptive parents and the weight class of adoptees, suggesting that childhood family environment alone has little or no effect.”

To suggest that you can draw a straight line from obesity to discipline is, in light of this sort of evidence, absurd.

Moreover, as Megan McArdle notes, the idea that weight is somehow a proxy for self-discipline seems to be rebutted by the likes of Mike Huckabee, Oprah Winfrey, and even Christie himself. For that matter, I’d simply note that our 42nd President wasn’t exactly a prime exponent of a healthy eating lifestyle for most of his eight years in office, and the American people seems just fine with it. (Of course, they also learned that Mr. Clinton had other appetite issues, but that’s an issue for another day) By and large, I think it’s fairly clear that Bill Clinton’s weight really didn’t impact his Presidency.

There’s also little evidence, so far at least, that Christie’s weight has been a serious health issue for him. In the 20 months he’s been Governor, he’s only been hospitalized once, for asthma. While it’s arguably the case that the asthma may have been aggravated by his weight, it’s hardly evidence of the kind of chronic health problems that Robinson suggests would be an issue should Christie run for, and potentially become President of the United States. As one doctor quoted in Klein’s piece put it, the fact that Christie is fat is not, by itself, evidence of anything medically:

I called Zeke Emanuel, an oncologist and bioethicist at the National Institutes of Health. “I think the fact of the matter is that the guy is going to have to release his health records, and that will give us a much better picture,” Emanuel says. “You need to know if he has high cholesterol, if he’s had myocardial infarction. But just knowing if he’s obese? That’s worthless.”

Ken Thorpe, a professor at the Rollins School of Publish Health at Emory University, was similarly unimpressed. “Excess weight probably shaves between zero years and a year-and-a-half from life expectancy,” he says. Compare that to smoking, which rips 13 to 14 years off a person’s life expectancy. “The problem with obesity is morbidity, not mortality. You have a higher rate of diabetes, bad cholesterol, back pain, that kind of thing. But if you’re taking your blood sugar medications and the right statins and so on, you can control a lot of that.”

As I noted yesterday, the one unknown question that a Christie candidacy would raise is whether personal appearance is really as relevant in politics as we tend to think it is. Since the dawn of the television era, we’ve tended to elect Presidents who either look like, or literally are, movie stars, the suggestion that Americans might be put-off by another William Howard Taft really isn’t that far fetched. But, maybe we should let them decide that for themselves. As Jazz Shaw put it today maybe Americans are ready for a “Big Presidency.”

I still don’t think Christie will run, I also don’t think he should run. Not because he’s fat, though. The question is why people like Kinsley and Robinson seem to think it’s such a big deal. Jonathan Chait, who I doubt can be considered an ideological ally of Christie’s, has a theory:

Why does his weight matter at all? The only real reasoning I see here is that American elites view obesity with disgust, and they’re repulsed at the notion that a very fat guy could rise to a position of symbolic leadership. It’s not a very attractive sentiment.

Is that what this is really all about?

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. SJ Reidhead says:

    As someone who has Christie’s weighty problems, during the past few years, I’ve noticed that there is more and more of a liberal push to simply make people like us go away. We are “obese” ergo we have no right to do anything but diet.

    I’m not surprised with any of this, considering the junk science the left is using against us.

    SJR
    The Pink Flamingo

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 9

  2. @SJ Reidhead:

    I think it may be a extension of broader vibe I get from a lot of people on the left the last few years that they seem to think that our only purpose for existing is to be useful to society and that any resources consumed for any other purpose (such as mere enjoyment) are in some sense being stolen from them.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 5

  3. Tano says:
    they’re repulsed at the notion that a very fat guy could rise to a position of symbolic leadership.

    Is that what this is really all about?

    Not likely. I suspect that step one is: is this guy a political opponent?

    If yes, then use whatever issue seems to present itself.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1

  4. The right seems to have a corresponding fetish for conformity.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  5. mantis says:

    I refuse to even discuss someone’s weight (or height, or looks, or other superficial attributes) as a factor in his/her ability to govern. It’s goddamned ridiculous.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 1

  6. ponce says:

    To suggest that you can draw a straight line from obesity to discipline is, in light of this sort of evidence, absurd.

    Um, this is close to Truther level stupidity.

    Eat less,exercise more and you will lose weight.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 3

  7. Hey Norm says:

    From Christies own mouth:

    “…”I weigh too much because I eat too much,” he said. “And I eat some bad things too…”

    This is not some exotic medical condition…it’s a lack of self-control.
    Now…does that have any revelance to his abilities as President?
    Voters may have to decide.
    Full disclosure…I’m on the worng end of the BMI scale as well…but I’m not running for President.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 2

  8. michael reynolds says:

    I agree with Mantis. But I also agree with Ponce.

    I think it’s absurd to dwell on weight. We have enough trouble getting anyone competent. Now we’re going to exclude everyone who’s overweight? Why not just wait for the messiah? Ridiculous.

    But having recently lost 25 pounds (and still going, I hope,) I can share a diet trick: I eat less. (A lot less, not a little.) And I drink less. (A little, not a lot.) And I exercise more. And despite being 100 years old, I lose weight.

    That being said, there’s no virtue without temptation. So a skinny, bird-like creature like Kinsley, who has never been fat, or close to it, has no claim to virtue for having had the good luck to draw the “skinny” card in the big game of DNA lotto. To claim virtue for being born thin is no different logically than claiming some special virtue for being born white or straight.

    The people who deserve praise are those who are at risk of obesity and through great struggle overcome it.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 1

  9. PD Shaw says:

    American elites view obesity with disgust, . . .Is that what this is really all about?

    Yes.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  10. MBunge says:

    “For decades now, we’ve known that obesity is linked to genetics.”

    That link’s a bit tenuous. Yes, it follows that if your parents are taller, there’s a good chance you’ll be taller and if they’re heavier, there’s a good chance you’ll be heavier. But when you start talking about people who are 50, 60 100 pounds overweight or more, I don’t know of any science that says they’ve been genetically doomed to that condition unless they have an actual metabolic disorder. Some folks are likely meant to be pudgier than others but Christie, who looks considerably fatter than Bill Clinton at his biggest, isn’t predestined to be that big.

    Now, should Christie being a fatso have a damn thing to do with whether he’ll be a good President? Hell no. We might be better off with a leader who lacks that “lean and hungry look”.

    Mike

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  11. Wayne says:

    I don’t recall anyone saying Obama was unfit to become President because of his smoking habit or Bill\Hillary Clinton for their weight issues. Certainly not at this level.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  12. Trumwill says:

    Yes, eat less and lose weight. Of course.

    That rests on the assumption that it is just as easy for Person A to eat less than Person B. And if Person B has more trouble with it, it’s because he “lacks discipline” or “doesn’t really want to lose weight.”

    That’s just wrong. Ridiculously wrong.

    I speak from experience. I struggled for five years to diet and lose weight. I tried everything under the sun. I tried eating food I hate. I tried limiting the foot I love. I tried both. I tried drinking ridiculous amounts of water. I tried giving up soft drinks. I tried, I tried, and I tried.

    I know, I know, I’m a worthless glutton who hates my body and exists solely to drain the health care coffers and make the world less aesthetically pleasing.

    Or I used to. Because I did lose the weight. Seventy-five pounds over two-and-a-half years. And you know what? It had nuts to do with discipline. It had nuts to do with wanting to lose weight. Things just… fell into place. Something happened here, something happened there. And it came off. With nothing approach the effort I was trying and failing to exert.

    I’m the same worthless glutton that I was five years ago. And all of those thin-arse people lecturing the fatties on how to eat less are not necessarily better. They often just lack the same hunger drive. Or the same metabolism. Or the same health-food upbringing. And I’m happy for them. But that gives them spit-all to say when it comes to lecturing someone with a different body, different temptations, and different drives.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 2

  13. michael reynolds says:

    I think we can all coalesce around a simple, timeless principle: f–k skinny people.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 3

  14. Patrick says:

    So let me get this straight. If you are fat, that shows a lack of discipline, and therefore you would not be a good leader. However, if a married male candidate chases anything in a skirt, and by doing so violates the oath of fidelity he took to his wife, well that is just none of our damn business and if we make a point of it, we are being too prudish.

    Doesn’t engaging in sexual liasons while being married show a lack of discipline? More importantly, doesn’t it show a lack of character, in that you are willing to betray someone you have pledged your fidelity too just to indulge your sexual appetites? Yet no one attacks FDR, JFK, or Bill Clinton on their ability to lead. Clinton even broke the law to avoid the civil consequences of his behavior!

    The weight issue is a red herring. The liberals dislike Christie, and having no real target, attack his weight. It is the moral equivalent of a group of six year olds pointing at the chubby kid and calling “Fatty, fatty!” This is unfortunately what the liberals call political discourse nowadays.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 2

  15. Racehorse says:

    Would these people have said the same things about Obama if he was overweight as a candidate?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  16. mantis says:

    I think we can all coalesce around a simple, timeless principle: f–k skinny people.

    As one of those skinny people, I’d like to chime in again. I’ve always been thin as a rail (it’s where the mantis nickname comes from), and actually tried like hell to gain weight when I played football in high school, but was largely unsuccessful. Almost regardless of my diet, I have maintained pretty much the same weight since I was 18 years old. We’re all stuck with the bodies we have, and there is a tremendous amount of biological variety in our species. Some bodies lose weight easily, some don’t. Some bodies gain weight easily, some don’t. I won’t judge someone else’s weight as a character issue because I don’t know what it has been like to live with that person’s body.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  17. Wayne says:

    Christie is already pulling liberals and conservatives together :) I not sure if he would be a good candidate or not but it looks the weight issue was overblown:):) Pun intended.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  18. john personna says:

    I see all sorts out on the trails, and I’m certainly friendly to the heavier folks. They do have a harder start. But the thing is, many of us thinner people are out there because we think we have to be. We fear what would happen if we gave it up, ate more, exercised less.

    So while obesity, especially at the extreme, may be about things beyond choice and self-control, I think it’s understandable that the exercising thinner person sees it as the dark side.

    (I’m fine with Christy being heavy, and possibly even a heart attack risk, of course, he better pick a really good VP, for that reason.)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  19. ponce says:

    I think we can all coalesce around a simple, timeless principle: f–k skinny people.

    Hehe,

    We just made the mistake of buying a Costco bag of Halloween candy thinking we were being efficient…*burp*

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  20. Ben Wolf says:

    My general opinion on the importance of discipline in weight management comes largely from seeing other ex-military: almost inevitably they physically fall apart on exiting the service. While in the military the fitness requirements and high energy “life-style” for lack of a better term meant most everyone stayed in relatively healthy proportions.

    Let’s also keep in mind people fifty years ago didn’t have obesity problems on anywhere near the scale we do now. What we eat and how much physical activity we get are quite clearly primary factors for the vast majority.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  21. An Interested Party says:

    So…because Michael Kinsley and Eugene Robinson write that Chris Christie shouldn’t run for president because of his girth, it’s suddenly a liberal jihad against the obese (or so some of the commenters seem to believe)? Please…what a fat ass straw man…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 1

  22. Trumwill says:

    What Ben speaks to is an issue of environment as much as discipline. Take someone out of one environment and put them into another, you are going to get different results. Take the kids of 50 years ago and put them in our current, culinarily plentiful world, and you’d likely see different results.

    Different people would respond differently, though.

    If Person A has a bite of greasy double-cheeseburger and says “Wow, this is amazing!” and Person B has it and thinks it’s disgusting, does Person B have more discipline for not eating the whole thing? If Person A says “This chocolate is good, I think I will have some periodically,” are they more discipline than Person B, who has the chocolate and thinks it is absolutely amazing? Does the person who stops after one helping have more discipline than the person that doesn’t… or do they simply have a body that expresses satiety more quickly and responds to overstuffing more fiercely?

    Some people really do either lose weight or stay thin due to greater discipline. Good for them. A lot of people, though, are simply not subject to the same temptations to the same degree as others. I am no more disciplined than I used to be. I just don’t *want* to eat what I used to eat. The last couple times I did, my body screamed holy hell instead of doing what it used to do (saying “Yum. Thanks!”).

    This is a rather complicated subject. I think it’s more complicated than what McArdle and Campos say, which is that there is a natural set weight that has some people being super-obese. But it’s also a lot more complicated than saying that people who are overweight are so simply because they are more virtuous and disciplined than people who are not overweight.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  23. jan says:

    @michael reynolds:

    The people who deserve praise are those who are at risk of obesity and through great struggle overcome it.

    Michael, I’m checking my pulse, because I’ve been agreeing with you, philosophically, far too much the last day or so!

    My dad was rail thin. I remember that he could eat anything and remain unfazed, physically, by his over-consumption of food. For instance, my grandmother, was a great cook, especially pies. And, he would sit at the table, having at least two pieces of her homemade desserts and just smile at the females around the table, looking so nonplused and somewhat disgusted. He would then say, “It’s my metabolism! I can’t help it!”

    So, yes there is a little luck to the shapes we are blessed with. And, those who have great metabolisms, like my dad, don’t have to sweat it so much (thank goodness I take after dad in this way). But, those who have battles with weight, like Michael said, deserve all the kudos they can get, for their constant struggles and demonstrations of self-discipline they have to exercise on a daily basis.

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  24. john personna says:

    If Person A has a bite of greasy double-cheeseburger and says “Wow, this is amazing!” and Person B has it and thinks it’s disgusting, does Person B have more discipline for not eating the whole thing?

    I’m sure there are feedback loops. If my belt is tight, that cheeseburger will taste less good.

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  25. alanmt says:

    Yeah, put me on the side of good governance over physical appearance/fitness. I prefer ability. Any link between one’s weight and one’s ability to govern seems too tenuous and likely to be outweighed by other factors.

    If I want to see sexy, I can look in the mirror. Or at my cache of Doug Mataconis shirtless pics.

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  26. Fiona says:

    I don’t know why anyone is so surprised by the media’s reaction to Christie’s obesity. We are a society that is obsessed by weight (or, more accurately, weight loss). The “diet” industry rakes in billions and billions of dollars a year. Shows like Biggest Loser are big hits. Some celebrity puts on a few pounds and it’s front-page news. Weight is the new smoking and there are plenty of moral judgments heaped on people who’ve packed on a few too many pounds.

    In the face of all this weight obsession, even as the nation’s obesity rate climbs each year, it’s little wonder that the media have latched onto Christie’s food issues. I’d be surprised if they hadn’t.

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  27. sdghdfgh says:

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