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11.23.10

Can a Fat Man Be President?

With the ascendance of decidedly chubby contenders like Chris Christie and Haley Barbour, the imperially slim presidential stereotype might be losing political currency. Lloyd Grove on why lean and hungry strivers are on the way out. Plus, see pictures of politicians' weight ups and downs.

Americans are getting fatter than ever, so why not a fat president?

It has been just about a century since William Howard Taft—delicately described as “our portliest president,” tipping the scale at 332 pounds—got stuck in a White House bathtub. Discounting the odd presidential relative (Hillary Clinton’s generously proportioned little brother, Hugh “Baby Hughie” Rodham, being an outsized example), no White House resident since 1913 has approached the girth of “Big Bill.” Even Hillary’s husband, who was by no means Taftian, had to endure David Letterman calling him “Tubby” every night.

President Obama—who, at 6-feet-2 and 165 pounds is on the opposite end of the weight continuum—periodically likes to inform the electorate, “Even though I’m skinny, I’m tough.”

Maybe so. But a proliferation of tough, smart, and decidedly chubby Republican contenders—namely Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (who, after famously dropping 110 pounds, is apparently on his way to restoring his previous padding)—suggests that the imperially slim presidential stereotype might be losing political currency.

Democrat Obama and his probable GOP rivals—including former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, South Dakota Sen. John Thune, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, and, yes, former Alaska Gov. (and beauty pageant contestant) Sarah Palin—certainly fit the telegenic stereotype of lean and hungry strivers. But the Obama presidency, the Tea Party counterrevolution, and the tumult of the midterm election have tossed conventional wisdom on its ear. It seems that anything is possible, including a Fat Tuesday in November 2012.

This is an especially pertinent issue as Americans, including that tiny but zealously ambitious group of Americans who covet the White House, prepare to stuff their faces with gravy-soaked dishes and rich desserts at Thanksgiving dinner.

Given the recent success on the national stage of bulky politicians, Sabato said, “maybe there’s a new tolerance” for an ovoid occupant of the Oval Office.

“In the past, Americans have identified their presidential candidates as lean, mean fighting machines,” said Larry Sabato, a political-science professor at the University of Virginia. “There are dozens of studies of ‘looks-ism’ in sociology and psychology, and how physical appearance affects people’s judgments of other people. And when people are shown blind photos of candidates, they almost always pick the best-looking candidate—male or female, it makes no difference.” But given the recent success on the national stage of bulky politicians, Sabato said, “maybe there’s a new tolerance” for an ovoid occupant of the Oval Office.

Of course, the presidents’ club is so exclusive that scientific study is all but impossible. “Every president is an anomaly. You can’t do a statistical analysis with only 44 points of data,” says University of North Carolina political sociologist Andrew Perrin. “But I doubt if weight itself would stand in the way of someone being elected.” Perrin adds that flab might even humanize our leaders in the same way that a politician tends be advantaged in public opinion surveys if voters feel they’d like to have a beer with him.

“I don’t really know if citizens, whether Democrats or Republicans, want to know what the weight of a candidate is, above which they will not vote,” said political scientist Robert Eisinger of the Savannah College of Art and Design. “Christie and Barbour are certainly larger than typical.” They both appear to be pushing 300 pounds. “Chris Christie is a unique figure. In his victory in New Jersey… it wasn’t that he made his weight the issue, but Christie’s opponent [incumbent Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine] tried to make weight an issue [in a television spot accusing Christie of “throwing his weight around” and it backfired. Christie said, ‘I am who I am—love me or leave me.’” (For his part, Christie has denied any interest in running for president in 2012, but so did Barack Obama at this stage of the game.)

Eisinger continued: “In Barbour’s case, some citizens might think, ‘He is like I am, he might share some of my values, I identify with him.’ And that’s where I think it is possible that being overweight is no longer the handicap that it once was; that it is no longer seen as a detriment to gaining higher office.”

It probably doesn’t hurt Barbour’s political fortunes that Mississippi is, statistically, the No. 1 state for obesity—a growing phenomenon in the United States generally, despite a nationwide explosion of health-club franchises and diet fads, not to mention first lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign to promote exercise and nutrition for school kids. It’s also an advantage that Barbour—who made a point of cultivating establishment journalists, often over tumblers of Maker’s Mark, when he was a political operative, Washington lobbyist, and successful chairman of the Republican National Committee—is a favorite of the media elite, many of whom could afford to shed a few pounds themselves.

“The governor is going through the process of considering whether he wants to run for the office, and he has not placed any timeline on when he makes his decision,” said a Barbour spokesman. “At some point you have to look at whether this will be about electing the person most qualified to lead the country, or is it a beauty pageant? If it’s the latter, I think we’re selling ourselves short as a nation.”

The 63-year-old Barbour, who is self-deprecating about his girth—“I don’t sweat much for a fat boy” is one of his tried-and-true laugh lines—is fully prepared to be the butt of fat jokes and sendups of his Southern drawl on Saturday Night Live. “With Haley, you get the whole package,” said the spokesman. “You get somebody who has a work ethic that people half his age can’t keep up with. He literally sleeps, walks, talks, and breathes what he’s doing, and when he takes time off with his family, he ends up getting policy memos faxed to him and corrects them and sends them back. I don’t know why [Barbour’s wife] Marsha doesn’t kill him.”

Of course, Barbour, Christie, and the other big guys must deal with some pop-cultural realities. Stanford University’s Shanto Iyengar, an expert in nonverbal political communication, pointed out that conventional notions of physical attractiveness retain their power over the collective imagination. “Every study in the psychological and sociological literature shows that attractiveness is correlated with influence, including getting votes,” Iyengar said. “It’s very clear. You don’t see too many ugly people selling products on television commercials.”

Fat chance. But the odds might just be better than one would expect.

Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.