Two kinds of story have been written about the announcement that New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has opted for lap-band surgery to curb his obesity: a simplistic horse-race story and a slightly more interesting, if still glib, pop-psychology story.
The logic of the horse-race story, such as it is, states that the governor’s decision must be taken as a sign that he is strongly considering a run for president in 2016. This analysis should be familiar to us by now. Al Gore, whose weight problem didn’t even approach Christie’s, was prodded and poked endlessly about his weight loss in the run-up to the 2008 election, with Beltway onlookers examining his fitness regimen the way Kremlinologists used to scrutinize seating arrangements at Red Square parades. Formerly-fat presidential candidate (and, sadly, likely candidate for regression) Mike Huckabee likewise garnered as much press for his loss of 110 pounds as for his beguiling media personality and surprising success in the Iowa caucus. The rigors of campaign life, the horse-race story assures us, are strenuous enough for a man in good health, and lugging extra weight through the Sisyphean procession of county fairs, primary debates, and fundraisers would only offer another obstacle. Besides, who was the last fat U.S. president?
This is the very question which lies at the center of the pop-psychology story. Whether because of superficiality among the electorate, the media’s emphasis on extreme beauty standards for members of both sexes, or the misleading proposition that overweight people have no control over themselves, Americans have not elected a president resembling Christie in a hundred years. That convenient century mark is distinguished, of course, by President William Howard Taft, the enormous milestone on our society’s collective road to the mortification of the human body in public life.
Christie’s ascent among Republican contenders guarantees that our twenty-seventh president will be regularly exhumed and made to play the smiling, Falstaffian foil to our newfangled misgivings about hypertension and stroke. Nothing so perfectly illustrates the absurd indignity of the former president’s size, as well as our obsession with it, than the cherished tale of the president becoming stuck in his own bathtub. While contemporary newspapers were replete with true accounts of enlarged tubs being installed in hotels and ships in anticipation of an official visit, we have no reason to think he was ever actually trapped in one.
The persistence of the story augured a new, mean-spirited focus on physical appearance that would bedevil Taft in his 1912 campaign for reelection. Theodore Roosevelt, attempting to reclaim the Oval Office on the Bull Moose ticket, denounced his former protégé as a “flubdub” and a “fathead” with “the brains of a guinea pig.” Cartoons and pamphlets depicted a mammoth, inert Taft next to the gaunt scholar Woodrow Wilson; Teddy Roosevelt, the burly prophet of American fitness, provided an even more damning contrast.
The smears were a Progressive-era analogue to some infamous advertisements run against Christie in his first gubernatorial race, one of which accused him of “throwing his weight around” before gleefully cutting to a slow-motion shot of his rumbling expanse getting out of an SUV. The difference was that Taft, unlike Christie, was ultimately trounced—the characterization of him as a pathetic behemoth played a role in his third-place finish behind a political neophyte and a retread (albeit a sensationally popular one).
If the much-repeated Taft paradigm is any indicator, therefore, Christie’s decision to have lap-band surgery constitutes yet another iteration of the pop-psychology story: Americans’ pronounced distaste for fleshy politicians has claimed an additional victim, and Christie has bowed to our prejudices in order to advance his career. That theory, though, has some major holes.
For one thing, voters have demonstrated no hesitance to elevate the plump to city halls and governors’ mansions. Several years ago, blogger Nate Silver determined the approximate fitness of the nation’s governors (in response, naturally, to those anti-Christie TV spots during the 2009 contest). Several portly officeholders filled out their ranks, and a few more have won state-level races since then. Heftiness can be a handicap in political life, the list suggests, but not a debilitating one. One need only consider Boston’s beloved Mayor Tom Menino to confirm that stocky candidates can excel in city politics as well.
Moreover, a recent University of Missouri study has found that politicians may actually benefit from being overweight, being seen as “more reliable, honest, dependable and inspiring” than their trimmer counterparts. To this point in his career, Christie has worn his bulk like a suit of armor, insulating himself from the omnipresent phoniness that seems to coat other seekers of power. The word most often used to describe him is “authentic,” and that authenticity is typically associated directly with his appearance. In a 2011 New York Times profile, Matt Bai makes the astute, if plainly self-evident, point that Christie’s favored public portrayal is that of “the proverbial bull in the china shop, the ungainly, somewhat boorish guy who lacks the artifice to keep from saying whatever obvious truth pops into his head.” He is a candidate who actually looks like America. How, we are invited to ask, could an ounce of guile inhabit this brassy, vulgar colossus?
The question, at last, invalidates the horse-race story. Chris Christie will soon be thin, or at least a great deal thinner than he is now. He will also probably run for president in 2016, but the second point need not have anything to do with the first. As the pounds melt from his body, he will forfeit some of his realness (“reality,” in our present era, connotes imperfection—see, for instance, Dove’s “Real Beauty” campaign), and become merely another ruthless Tri-Stater in a suit, a Jersey Rahm Emanuel.
When asked why he was willing to undergo surgery, Christie gave a fairly anodyne response about his health. “For me,” he said, “this is about turning 50 and looking at my children and wanting to be there for them.” This is what you would expect to hear from someone calculating how to hide his political motives, but it is also what you would expect to hear from a genuine person. There is no better reason for Christie to lose weight than to stay alive. If his answer is true, and he is forthrightly prioritizing his life and family over the coming presidential race, then he may be as authentic as he and his supporters claim. But now he must shed the symbol of his authenticity to prove it.