Phil-osophically Speaking: October 6, 2011

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The State of Our Political Discourse

Okay, so the guy likes to eat. He even admits it. But so what — the Constitution has an age requirement but says nothing about making weight before being sworn in as President of the United States. I’m talking about Chris Christie, governor of New Jersey, who many are pushing to enter the presidential sweepstakes. With opinion polls strongly indicating that Barack Obama is vulnerable, Republicans are salivating at the prospect of taking back the White House in 2012. The problem is none of the candidates have been struck by lightning.

Perennial presidential candidate Ron Paul may be refreshingly frank, but his thinking is too sloppy and spastic. The Administration’s decision to kill Anwar al Awlaki, probably the world’s most feared terrorist, was seen by Paul not as a triumph but a criminal act because this plotter of mass murders happens to be a U.S. citizen. Positions like these make the ACLU’s heart flutter but it’s not going to win the hearts and minds of Americans. Meanwhile, Mitt Romney, an inveterate flip-flopper, is so self-parodically presidential that it has dulled his prospects despite a campaign that is extremely well organized and financed. Rick Perry made a grand entrance; but his fumbling in recent debates has shaken his early support and his cowboy shtick is so unrelentingly self-conscious that he has succeeded in making some liberals look back fondly on George W. Bush. Michelle Bachmann’s tart tongue at first pleased but now grates.

Hence, the feeling is that Republicans can beat Obama if they don’t beat themselves by nominating the wrong candidate. Enter Chris Christie. The tough-talking New Jersey governor has outmaneuvered teachers’ unions and has applied fiscal hygiene to a diseased economy. With Governor Christie poised to decide this week on whether to make a run, criticism from both Democrats and Republicans is being directed at the new contender. That’s fair — politics is a contact sport and there is no bigger scrimmage than the race to the presidency. But is it necessary to make his weight a national issue? Chris Matthews, the MSNBC commentator, has flatly said that Chris Christie is too fat to be president. Others are gleefully chiming in about the circumference of Mr. Christie’s waistline.

Christie might look more like a contestant on the hit reality show The Biggest Loser than a modern day statesman. However, shouldn’t we be more concerned about what Christie intends to do with an economy that’s barely breathing, the Iran and Iraq quagmire and a whole host of other issues rather than wondering about his pants size? It’s not as if having a corpulent occupant in the White House is a novelty. When John Adams, our second president, demanded a title apropos for his office his detractors proposed “Your Rotundity” as a fitting description for the present Commander in Chief. Adams’ son, John Quincy, as brilliant as his father, was also short, fat and bald. James Buchanan, Chester Arthur and Grover Cleveland were also, shall we say, men of heft. Bill Clinton was not always the svelte vegan he is today. I remember when he was Bubba unedited, the loquacious, skirt chasing, cheeseburger chomping chief executive who was nonetheless a very popular president. Clinton, by the way, ranks as our seventh fattest president among the 44 Chief Executives. You didn’t think historians kept such statistics — but they do.

Then, of course, there is the patron saint of the plump and portly of presidential politics, William Howard Taft, who holds the White House record by scaling in at a whopping 356 lbs. Temperamentally, Taft was one of those inert types who, whenever he felt the urge to exercise, would lay down until the feeling passed. With the encouragement of his doctors, however, he decided to embark on a more strenuous life other than morphing into his cushy chair every morning and rising out of it only to go to bed. He wrote to Colonel House, his close advisor and friend about his progress: “Went horseback riding this morning and I feel just fine.” House wrote back: “How’s the horse?”    

It’s not just weight that is being argued as disqualifying, it’s all sorts of things that have no relevance to the office. Some are considered not tall enough, or lacking the requisite number of hairs on their head. In an age where image is all, one pundit wrote we will never again see a bald man in the oval office. The last one was Dwight Eisenhower who twice defeated Adlai Stevenson who, as fate would have it, was also bald. As a result, baldness wasn’t an issue. Presidential candidates are modeling for Gentleman’s Quarterly; they are aspiring to be leader of the free world. Why diminish the pool of contenders with such foolish and sophomoric prejudices? James Madison was barely 5 feet tall and weighed 100 pounds soaking wet, but he was the father of the Constitution and had, among all the Founders, the most subtle and refined intellect. The Founders were humored by the notion that in Madison’s person they had never seen, “so much mind in so little matter.”

There is some reason to believe that these prevailing attitudes are held more by opinion makers than the general electorate. No one predicted we would elect a black president in 2008. In 2000, while failing to get the 270 electoral votes to win, Gore–Lieberman defeated Bush-Cheney by 500,000 votes. Lieberman was Jewish, and an orthodox Jew to boot. Yet Americans were comfortable with him being a heartbeat away. Barack Obama scarcely defeated Hillary Clinton for the Democratic Party’s nomination, but if nominated she most likely would have defeated John McCain to become the first woman president. And, in one of the most surprising of all political facts, more women in 1960 voted for the jowly, perpetually perspiring Richard Nixon than the tan, youthful, handsome John F. Kennedy.

So perhaps the American people are not as taken with superficialities as the media and talking heads that cover these politicians. This doesn’t mean that image doesn’t count; only that it counts less than some might think. The imitable Claire Booth Luce mocked the mustached Thomas Dewey by saying he will never be president because he reminds people of the little man on the wedding cake. Truman barely defeated him in 1948; but ever since, no one with facial hair has been nominated by the two major parties. In fact, the last president with facial hair was William Howard Taft who, by today’s standards, would have a double whammy to overcome.

Some of our great presidents would have been a PR nightmare: Washington with his wooden teeth and the melancholic Lincoln, always wearing black, looked like a mortician. And then there is the wheelchair-bound Franklin Roosevelt. I wonder how the media and America would deal with a physically challenged candidate today. To both the voters and media’s credit, back in the Roosevelt years, no one really seemed to focus on FDR’s handicap, only the man himself who they refused to define solely by his affliction. In today’s media-obsessed circus, I doubt if such good sense and restraint could be exercised.

If he decides to run, voters can decide about Christie on any number of issues, but as long as he’s in reasonable health, weight shouldn’t be one of them. One blogger called Christie the “Great White Hope,” a tag taken from the author Jack London who said America should search for an oversized white guy to wipe the mocking smile off the face of Jack Johnson, the first Black Heavyweight Champion. That’s a racial dig at both Christie and the Republican Party; the writer apparently hasn’t noticed that Herman Cain, a black conservative businessman, is running a very competitive third in a crowded Republican field. I’d advise Christie not to fret over such insults; the writer could have referred to Melville instead of London and called Christie, “The Great White Whale.” Such is the state of our political discourse.

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