TIMOTHY NOAH SEPTEMBER 30, 2011
Michael Kinsley, my friend and former boss at the New Republic and Slate, has a Bloomberg column today arguing that Chris Christie's fatness is a legitimate issue in judging his fitness (no pun intended) to be president. Paul Campos, a law professor at the University of Colorado, argues elsewhere on this Web site that it isn't a legitimate issue, or, if it is, it isn't clear whether it's a minus or a plus. I take a more scientific approach to this question. Earlier this week I surveyed America's fattest presidents (defined as those with a Body Mass Index of 30 or more) and found, based on Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.'s 1996 "greatness" rankings, that collectively these lipo-Americans fell into the "average" category as presidents, albeit at its higher end. As some readers pointed out, it was a small sample--only five presidents were in the 30-plus range, and one of them was the almost pathologically vigorous Theodore Roosevelt. (Chester Arthur, 28.7, and Bill Clinton, 28.3, were our sixth- and seventh-fattest presidents, but being shy of 30 they did not meet the medical definition of obesity. Interestingly, we have only ever had one president who was medically obese and also a Democrat. That was Grover "Where's My Pa?" Cleveland. Three of the others were Republicans and the fifth was a Whig. Draw whatever conclusions you like.)
It seems clear that, whether people argue that Christie's weight is a legitimate issue or whether they argue it's an illegitimate one, we're going to be talking for some time about ... Christie's weight. Shouldn't we therefore at least know what that weight is? As best I can determine the man has never made such information public. Presumably if he enters the race he'll end up disclosing it, along with his tax records and his college transcripts. But why wait? In his book The Wisdom of Crowds James Surowiecki wrote about the eerie accuracy of crowd-sourced estimates about, say, how many marbles were in a jar. You just take all the estimates, average them, and poof!--you get something very, very close to the actual number. As individuals we are stupid but collectively we are geniuses. (I would have thought you'd take the median, to screen out the outliers, but apparently outliers have views that warrant equal attention--a lesson often forgotten in the policy realm.) This theory works better in some contexts than in others--the New York Times has spent the better part of 20 years constantly recalibrating its best-seller lists to make American reading habits seem less appalling--but apparently its efficacy in the realm of simple objective facts is unchallenged.
In that spirit, I invite TNR subscribers to offer, in the comment section below, estimates of Chris Christie's weight. I will then compute the average, and we'll call that Christie's weight until better information becomes available.
Update: It seems to be Debate The Saliency of Christie's Weight Day. Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post says aye ("It costs Medicare $1,723 more a year for an obese beneficiary than a non-obese one") and Jonathan Chait of New York (and previous occupant of this space) says nay ("Why does his weight matter at all? The only real reasoning I see here is that American elites view obesity with disgust..."). If this keeps up we may have a culture war on our hands. For our purposes, the only relevant information in either piece is Robinson's bold estimate that Christie's weight "appears to exceed the 286 pounds that would place him [as a guy who stands 5' 11"] among the 5.7 percent of American adults whom NIH classifies as 'extremely obese.'" I'll put Robinson down for a guess of 290.