Rupert Cornwell: This is one 2012 hopeful who's had his chips

Out of America: Republicans are begging Chris Christie to take on Obama, but he brings with him a weighty problem
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The Independent Online

Is it mere coincidence that news of the death of Arch West came just as the Republican frenzy over enlisting New Jersey governor Chris Christie as a 2012 presidential candidate reached boiling point last week?

Let me explain. Mr West, the inventor of the Dorito chip, is one of the little-known architects of modern America. In the early 1960s, the story goes, he was on holiday in California when he stopped with his family to buy some toasted tortillas at a roadside stand. They were messy, greasy but delicious – and the executive of the Frito-Lay snack food company knew he had hit gold.

He went back to headquarters in Dallas and persuaded Frito-Lay to create a new chip called the Dorito. It was crisp and crunchy, with a tangy dusting that sticks to the fingers. Today, Frito-Lay sells $5bn-worth of Doritos in 20 countries – including close on a billion bags in the US alone each year, more than three per head for every inhabitant.

Doritos these days come in a variety of flavours, from regular to such subtle shades as scorchin' habanero and blazin' buffalo. In the temple of snack foods, they are the supreme deity, utterly artificial and utterly addictive. Less charitably, they have been described by the nutritionist Marion Nestle as "the classic prototypical junk food". Which brings me to Chris Christie.

Not to put too fine a point on it, Mr Christie looks as if he's consumed his share of junk food and Doritos. A couple of years ago, during his gubernatorial campaign, this column wondered whether, in an era when obesity is a serious issue, a very fat man could be elected to high political office in America. As it turned out, Mr Christie won handsomely. And so effectively has he performed since, that Republicans, unenthused by a choice between Mitt Romney and Rick Perry, are literally begging him to enter the White House race.

Even his ideological opponents acknowledge his political appeal. He is blunt and funny, and gives the impression of getting things done. His girth is part of his political persona: of the straight-shooting regular Joe with a beer and a pizza, putting the world to rights. The New Jersey governor's mansion, however, is one thing. The White House is quite another.

If Mr Christie bows to the entreaties, like it or not, the weight issue will be back. Not by coincidence, The Washington Post on Friday published not one but two photos, on separate pages, of a svelte Barack Obama alongside a jowly, heavy-bellied governor, shaped like Humpty Dumpty. One adorned a piece by the paper's liberal columnist Eugene Robinson that explicitly linked Mr Christie's physique to America's costly obesity epidemic.

The governor's exact weight is a closely kept secret, but observation suggests it is in the region of 300lb, roughly 21 stone. For a man about 5ft 11in tall, that is classified as "extreme obesity". In historical terms, Christie's heft is no disqualification – William Howard Taft, president from 1909-13, at one point topped 330lb (over 23 stone). But that was in the pre-television era, when obesity was not a problem, when presidents mostly went unseen by the average voter.

No longer. These days, a presidential physical check-up is front-page news. A Christie campaign would be picked to pieces by opponents masquerading as public health specialists, pointing to the costs incurred by the obese whose number, as a percentage of the population, has doubled since 1970. The governor, to be fair, does not duck the issue. "If I weighed less, I'd be healthier," he said this summer after a brief spell in hospital for an asthma attack (a condition that obesity tends to worsen). "The weight exacerbates everything." And he further confessed, "I weigh too much because I eat too much – and I eat some bad things." Doritos maybe?

Arch West's brainwave did not cause, but it considerably intensified, the US love affair with snacks. These days an American consumes some 2,375 calories per day, a third more than in 1970. Meanwhile, the number of eating moments has increased from 3.8 to 4.9 per day. Given that breakfast, lunch and dinner have been pretty much the same over the decades, the difference presumably is accounted for by snacks. Frito-Lay, like its competitors, has paid lip service to demands for "healthier" goods, by eliminating trans fats from Doritos. But with 270 calories per bag and lashings of sodium, they're never going to make any physician's recommended food list.

It is impossible to say whether or not Mr Christie will take the presidential plunge. Last week he was still mum, insisting that a final decision will depend on whether he feels ready. But the clock is ticking; the first votes that count, in Iowa and New Hampshire, may be just three months off.

Yesterday Mr West was interred in Dallas, as his family scattered over his grave the little golden chips that made him famous. One can only wonder whether the same fate could befall a Christie presidential run.