Profound Questions: Can the President Be Fat?
Originally published April 6, 2012
Back in 2009, McSweeneys.net started a competition searching for "columnists." I was among the first batch of winners. "Chris White Answers Profound Questions About the Presidents" ran for a year, with a few additional installments added afterward.
No matter how barren the political landscape seems, no matter how tedious the campaign becomes, take heart. Our next leader will have respectable abs.
We live in a golden decade of presidential fitness, when financial markets are unaffected by the top American venturing outside in shorts. Photographers occasionally caught Truman in Key West with his shirt off, and it made you wish he wasn't from the Show Me state; the Obama White House, on the other hand, has resisted attempts to capture the vacationing president shirtless, because it's creepy to know that some portion of the electorate is positively influenced by the sight of your nipples.
But even the Trumans of the world weren't tremendously fat, and no one left in the 2012 field jiggles much. We're pushing into a second century of non-obese presidents. So what dreams do we nurture in our donut-loving, politically minded children? Will the president ever again be fat?
There was a time when the president could be. We gravitate to Taft, who generated the most gravity. After a lifetime of service to his country -- ruler of the Philippines, secretary of war, president, chief justice of the United States -- he is remembered only for being stuck in a bathtub, which probably never happened. He was so fat you can't get around it: a body mass index north of 40, which is short of using a long-handled spoon to feed yourself but big enough that you wouldn't want to sit next to him on an airplane.
Taft was just the back end of the Fat Age, however. Between 1889 and 1912, four legitimately fat dudes spent time in the White House. The country wasn't even that fat at the time. Refrigerators full of processed food didn't exist, walking was a means of conveyance and not exercise, and people were constantly losing weight in various traumatic industrial accidents.
To be fat took extra effort or wealth, but it was not seen as an intolerable character flaw. In fact, very little was seen as an intolerable character flaw. Grover Cleveland -- Uncle Jumbo to his family -- waddled under the radar despite weighing around 300 pounds, having a bastard child, dodging the Civil War draft and marrying a 21-year-old (who was also his ward) while president. He was elected twice (almost three times, ).
As was William McKinley. Obesity wasn't an obstacle for Bill until 1901, when surgeons had a hard time fishing a bullet out of his body thanks to the layers of blubber; he had a spherical political adviser in Mark Hanna and a fat 1900 running buddy in Theodore Roosevelt. The only thing that put reedy Woodrow Wilson in the White House was Roosevelt splitting the fat guy vote with Taft in 1912, but we haven't gone back to big pimpin' since.
Why isn't exactly clear. Detractors of a portly president say the job takes too much energy for a fat person, which is absurd. The workload of the early 20th century might have been a little lighter, but it was a time with heavier clothes and no air conditioning -- the big guys didn't have it easy. Taft might have been a little sleepy from time to time, but no one had more energy than Teddy Roosevelt; he raised something like 47 children and killed half the wildlife in America while serving. And besides, is carrying 70 extra pounds really more tiring than having polio? Or having a hunchback and conducting 17 extramarital affairs per week? Or being married to Mary Todd Lincoln? Energy isn't a function of weight -- it's a function of trying to make up for deep psychological issues created by your father. It's not a beer gut, it's a gas tank for a campaigning machine.
The more persuasive observation is that we haven't had a fat leader in the television era. There might be something there; if a fat person is on TV these days, fatness is often their defining characteristic, and they're trying to eliminate it to win $100,000. Of course, that's the kind of fat person foisted on America by entertainment executives, who have reams of data about sexual attractiveness, market share and why -- no, really! -- Whitney Cummings is just hilarious.
If you've been to a clothing-optional beach, then you're familiar with the other kind of fat person, who is perfectly fine with their body and doesn't really care if you have a problem with them tossing a Frisbee around. Confidence tends to be appealing, and a fat person comfortable with their weight is an avatar of fortitude. Plus, you can't forget demographics. If America is getting fatter all the time and we live in a representative democracy, eventually a chunky guy or gal is going to be the full face of this great nation. Despite the paucity of the last century, there's no serious reason to think that a future president can't be fat.
The bigger problem would be a president getting fat on the job. Whatever the reason for the weight gain, the leader who picks up a chin by the midterm elections is sending a signal to the deranged dictators of the world: this guy might be stressed out; oppress the masses now. It's harder to maintain an appearance of control if you're not controlling your own body, so having a cheesesteak for lunch could be the catalyst that triggers World War III.
That's still no reason to preclude a large person from office. And really, navel-gazing armchair analysts are the only ones who would do such a thing. For all the gnashing of teeth about intolerant, ignorant unwashed masses, this fall we'll probably have a black guy running against a Mormon. Anything can happen. So when 2016 gets here, don't be afraid to think big.