No sooner is Barack Obama inaugurated for his second and final term in office than the starting gun sounds for the race to succeed him as president in 2016.
This we know, from the appearance last week of Chris Christie on the Late Show with David Letterman: an appearance which seemed solely to consist of badinage between the two men about the extent of the New Jersey Governor’s circumference.
The extraordinarily popular Christie – he currently enjoys a 73 per cent job approval rating from the far from uncomplaining folk of New Jersey – would have been the Republicans’ most obvious candidate to take on Obama in 2012. But despite the insistent pleas from within his party, Christie had declared (at the age of 49): “Now is not my time.” A fortnight ago, when a local paper asked the same question vis-à-vis 2016, the Governor responded,“Damn right, I’d be more than ready”.
Hence, as I say, the appearance on Letterman. Why Letterman? Because America’s most durable chat-show presenter had been merciless over the past few years in making fun of Christie’s corpulence. For example: “If Christie becomes President, he will appoint a Secretary of Cake.” Or: “Governor Christie blew out the candles on his 50th birthday cake yesterday. And then wished for another cake.”
On the show last week, barely 30 seconds into his appearance, Christie pulled out and scoffed a jam-filled doughnut, saying (between mouthfuls), “Sorry, I didn’t realise the interview would go on so long.” Well, it made me laugh. But this was, in fact, deadly serious politics; Christie was deploying the classic candidate’s strategy of confronting his perceived biggest weakness on his own terms and attempting to turn it into an asset.
That the Governor in reality regards this as far from a joking matter was borne out the next day, after the woman who was Bill Clinton’s White House doctor, Connie Mariano, went on CNN to argue that, “I’m worried about this man dying in office...It’s almost like a time bomb waiting to happen unless he addresses those issues”. An enraged Christie rang up Dr Mariano directly and, by her own account, “was blunt and insulting and accusatory”. He then held a press conference in which he described this retired rear-admiral as “a hack” who “should shut up”.
Christie’s blunt plain-speaking is one of the things which have made him so popular. But two things are also clear from this. First, he is much more sensitive about this issue than he pretends to be; and second, the reason why he is so sensitive is not just a natural objection to being attacked over one’s physical characteristics, but also because when it comes to the anticipated straight fight between him and Hillary Clinton in 2016, it might become a battle over which would be the President most likely to peg out: a woman about to enter her 70s and who has suffered a cranial blood clot, or a man only in his fifties, but whose BMI is almost off the charts.
Still, this BMI business is a mystery; and I speak as one roughly the same height as Christie, and who himself has been labelled obese under that categorisation. Apparently, men of this height – between 5ft 10in and 5ft 11in – should weigh between 9st 3lbs and 12st 7lbs. All right – at around twice the latter weight, the New Jersey Governor is definitely pushing his luck. But really: 9st 3lbs is ideal? If I hit that weight, I would know only that I was seriously ill, if not actually dying. A doctor friend backs me up on this, arguing that a number of his anorexic patients would be classified as very healthy according to these measurements.
In America, at least among those who appear regularly on television, painfully skinny has become a crazy new normal; and somehow they almost do look normal, until you see them in the flesh (what they have left of it). I was introduced to President Obama a couple of years ago on his state visit to this country, and was actually startled by his... well, cadaverousness is the only word for it.
In this, politics is merely following the conventions of showbusiness, which, in turn, seems to be imitating pornography. A British friend of mine who works in US television production has only gradually become used to the way in which the women presenters all seem to have stick-like limbs and enhanced breasts: he claims that it defies the law of gravity that they manage to stay perpendicular when standing, rather than fall flat on their faces.
So while I accept Dr Mariano’s genuine concern about the well-being of the Republican Party’s most likely next President (and Mariano is herself a Republican), I also welcome the prospect of a candidate who does not conform to the tyranny of appearance, in particular an appearance which is inhuman in its perfect plasticity.
On the Daily Beast online forum, much frequented by Democrat supporters, that is not the feeling about Christie. One wrote, with supreme sanctimony, that “his obesity is raising the premiums for all others in the New Jersey public employee medical insurance plan. It costs the state double to transport him on conventional jets because he requires two seats. The man is not fit to run for public office.” To this, another responded: “Christie will not be able to RUN for anything. Right now he can’t walk 400 yards.”
Keep those jokes coming, boys: my guess is that the wider American public is more likely to identify with the roly-poly Christie than with those trying to stigmatise his obesity as a sign of moral weakness or even selfishness. Besides, if the facts are as we are constantly told, the obese constitute the biggest minority in the US – and will soon not even be in a minority at all. It brings to mind the case of the new MP, only just elected, who told an older colleague over a drink in the Commons how shocked he was to find “so many stupid people in this place”. The more experienced member reproved him: “There are a lot of stupid people in this country, and they deserve representation.”
It was a joke, obviously: and of course Christie’s job as President would not be to represent the obese of America, but every American. All that matters, in that context, is what sort of a leader he would be, not how many doughnuts he scoffs, or whether he could disembark from Airforce One without use of a chairlift. Franklin Roosevelt had been crippled by polio; Lyndon Johnson had suffered a massive heart attack long before he became President; John F Kennedy had Addison’s disease, among other chronic medical conditions.
Fat should not be a Presidential issue.