Chris Christie Too Fat To Be President?
Can someone who doesn't look like a GQ model make it in politics anymore?
As the political media continues to push ahead with speculation about Chris Christie’s Presidential intention, ABC News wonders if the New Jersey Governor’s weight would keep him out of the office:
For Chris Christie, there was no way around it. “In case you haven’t noticed, I’m slightly overweight,” he said during a debate in his successful campaign for governor.
Two years later, Christie is the man of the moment in presidential politics, with many powerful Republicans clamoring for him to run. But it has been 100 years since Americans sent a true heavyweight to the White House, when William Howard Taft tipped the scales at well over 300 pounds.
Nor is Christie just “slightly overweight.” So there is no delicate way to ask this: Is Chris Christie too fat to win?
Politics, after all, is a business of image and first-impressions — and study after study shows that people judge the hefty more harshly than they judge those who are thin.
“Overweight people have much less of a chance of getting a job, they have much less of a chance of keeping a job … they are paid less than those who are thin,” said David Birdsell, dean of the School of Public Affairs at Baruch College in New York.
“In this era of exercise, we impute moral failings to people who don’t rein in their weight,” he said. “Those prejudices are just intensified for people who seek elected office.”
Indeed, John McLaughlin, a New York-based Republican political consultant, said he routinely advises his clients to watch what they eat.
“You don’t want them to gain weight, to look poorly on television,” he said.
Political scientists and strategists said they could not recall a truly heavy American politician finding great national success in the television age.
“Our candidates tend to be tall, they tend to have great hair,” said Russell Riley, a presidential scholar at the University of Virginia’s Center of Public Affairs. “This doesn’t seem to be a business that, at the presidential level, willingly accepts people who are demonstrably overweight.
Well, at least not since the days of William Howard Taft, who was so legendarily large that he once got stuck in the White House bathtub and ordered it be replaced with one that was big enough for four average sized men. Of course, Taft was also the last President with facial hair, and we haven’t had a major party Presidential candidate with facial hair since the Republicans nominated Thomas Dewey in 1948. And, starting in 1960, we have seen television and the moving image influence political elections in fundamental ways.
Put simply, a candidate who does not look good on television, or who doesn’t know how to use the medium, is going to be at a distinct disadvantage when going up against someone who does. The classic example of this is the legendary, and perhaps apocryphal tale of the 1960 Nixon-Kennedy debates. According to the accepted history, people who watched the debate on television believed Kennedy won, while those who listened on radio believed Nixon had won. The actual history of the debates is somewhat more complicated. Nixon had been ill before that first debate and choose to utilize a form of makeup that made his face seem even more pallor than usual over the television sets of the time. He had also injured his knee the weekend before and was apparently in pain due to standing for so long. Also, there were actually four Nixon-Kennedy debates and it’s generally accepted that Nixon’s performances were much stronger in the final three debates than in that first one. The problem for Nixon is that far more people watched the first debate than the final three, so it’s probable that a lot of people didn’t get to see those debates. Despite this twist on the legend, though, the lesson that the Nixon-Kennedy debates set in many peoples minds was that television was “dumbing down” politics, and that we had entered an era where appearance and image would matter more than substance.
It’s been generally true that television has irreversibly changed the political process, and the manner in which we pick Presidents. One need only look at the campaigns and Presidencies of our two most media savvy Presidents to see that effect. Both Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton used television, and their ability to use it to their advantage, to advance their agendas on numerous occasions. Reagan made many Oval Office or East Room addresses designed to push a piece of legislation through a House of Representatives controlled by the opposition party, for example. Bill Clinton arguably both resurrected and relaunched his 1992 campaign thanks to appearances on 60 Minutes where he addressed the Gennifer Flowers allegations, and The Arsenio Hall Show. In both cases, image mattered significantly to their ability to connect with the public.
So what does this say about Christie? Are we forever in an era where only tall, thin, people with good hair will be elected President, or is the door still open for the next William Howard Taft? Some argue that Christie’s weight might actually be an advantage in the current political climate:
At a time when many Americans are angry with Washington and fed up with politicians, Christie’s weight allows him to stand apart from the political crowd, they said. It is an image Christie played to when he warned New Jerseyans to “get the hell off the beach” as Hurricane Irene approached in late August.
“People want something different, something out of the ordinary … someone who is willing to stand up and confront problems,” McLaughlin said “Being a picture-perfect candidate I don’t think is as important anymore.”
Doug Muzzio, a political scientist at Baruch College, said Christie’s weight could help him subliminally with voters, too.
“Maybe this is a time when you need someone to be a bull in a china shop,” Muzzio said. “Well, bulls are big.”
Maybe, or maybe in a nation where obesity is seemingly a national pastime, how someone looks on television isn’t as big a deal as it used to be.