I got an email a couple weeks ago from New York Times reporter David Halbfinger looking to do a story on the weighty political race raging between New Jersey Gov. John Corzine and Republican challenger Christopher Christie. Because I am a journalist myself, I seldom speak on the record anymore, but I did talk with David for a good half-hour to help provide him with some context and other similar examples (the most recent of which are the fat-attacks on Surgeon General-elect Regina Benjamin and SCOTUS nominee Sandra Sotomayor). The Times printed his story yesterday and I’m glad to see that it not only seems critical of Corzine’s jabs at Christie’s weight, but also failed to mention the Big Bad Obesity Epidemic or question Christie’s physical ability to assume office.
The story, in a nutshell, is this: Corzine, a Democrat, maintains a 40 percent approval rating in a blue state. These numbers, combined with the state’s high tax rate, stifling property taxes and record high unemployment promised a climate ripe for a GOP takeover. The race turned ugly long ago, but now Corvine is calling attention to Christie’s weight in not-so-subtle ways. A television ad for Corvine shows Christie stepping out of an S.U.V. in extreme slow motion so that his extra girth also moves, just as slowly, while a narrator snidely intones that Christie “threw his weight around” to avoid getting traffic tickets. Other commercials and online videos (deliberately?) feature unattractive images of Christie, sometimes shot from the side or backside, highlighting his corpulence, jowls and double chin. Meanwhile Corzine has been conspicuously running in 5- and 10-kilometer races almost every weekend, as Halbfinger suggests, “underscoring his athleticism and readiness for the physical demands of another term — and raising doubts about Mr. Christie’s.”
Corvine denies the fat-baiting, but even his fellow cronies are now questioning the effectiveness of playing the fat card.
“There’s no subtlety there,” said Bill Baroni, a Republican state senator from Hamilton who lost 130 pounds starting 15 years ago. “That’s not a randomly chosen phrase. It’s purposeful. And it’s offensive.”
Mr. Baroni said that Mr. Corzine risked a backlash from the “tens of thousands” of New Jerseyans who struggle with their weight. “It is a lifetime battle,” he said. “And it’s made harder when people that you expect better from make fun of you.”
Christie is brushing off the jabs as “silly,” but as Halbfinger notes, there are signs that they may be working among voters in one of the leanest states in the union. In a recent survey conducted by Monmouth University, voters were asked to say the first thing to came to mind about Christie. “Fat” was a frequent response, said poll director Patrick Murray, who attributed the results to the Corvine ads. Murry said that he believed that the ads were intended to convey a “sublimial message” that Christie is reckless with his health, and ergo, might be reckless in other ways.
(Not mentioned in the Times’ story is the near visceral degree of fat hatred harbored by many a voter who don’t care a fig about health. A now removed Craig’s List posting titled “Why I Will NOT Vote for Chris Christie” vehemently opines: “More money expended by us taxpayers because he is fat! I just don’t like fat people and Chris Christie is fat! ….hide the M&M’s.” Comments on Daily Kos range from “What a fat piece of garbage,” to “I can’t stand fat azz pompus arrogant pieces of shet like this guy.” Over at CNN’s Political Ticker, you can find such gems as “Look at that fat Republican. The overfed look should be enough to dissuade voters. Greedy Pig…,” and “Chris Christie a criminal, fat pig.”)
The ads also seem to be taking their toll on Christie himself, a yo-yo dieter who has long struggled with his size. Christie said that he’s become “numb” to fat jokes after so long and other than rightly insisting that his size has nothing to do with his being governor, he refuses to discuss his weight, even jokingly. But while Christie declined to give his exact weight, saying that it’s not “anybody else’s business,” he did mention that he has lost 25 pounds since June by working with a personal trainer three times a week. As Halbfinger notes, there’s not much else he can say.
Although significantly overweight politicians are increasingly rare these days, especially at the national level, several governors have very publicly tried to shed pounds, often unsuccessfully. Bill Richardson of New Mexico has told of trying the Atkins and liquid diets to little avail. Sonny Perdue of Georgia weighed nearly 230 pounds when he threw away a Snickers bar to start dieting in 2003. Edward G. Rendell of Pennsylvania has lost 48 pounds, but still carries 220 on a 5-foot-11-inch frame.
Former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas famously broke an antique chair during a cabinet meeting before losing 110 pounds, becoming a presidential contender and writing a self-help book, “Quit Digging Your Grave With a Knife and Fork.”
Short of that kind of success story, fat candidates have few ways of defending against the kind of attack Mr. Corzine is using, political consultants say. Among them: always wear a jacket, never wear tight-fitting clothes, and never get photographed while eating.
It wasn’t so very long ago that such tactics might have backfired among voters. One of the liveliest presidential feuds occurred between presidents Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft. On Election Night in 1904, Roosevelt announced that he would not run for office again in 1908 and virtually appointed his close friend and Secretary of War – William Howard Taft – as his successor. With Roosevelt’s support, Taft won by a landslide, but whereas the blustering Roosevelt had taken on the conservatives, the milder-mannered Taft instead chose the art of compromise. By the end of his term, Roosevelt had become convinced that Taft had betrayed the progressive principles he held so dear, and so decided to run against Taft for the Republican nomination in 1912.
A bitter feud developed between the once close friends, with Roosevelt calling Taft, among other things, a “Fathead.” The insults between them were so bitter that it was reported that Taft once broke out in tears after delivering a stinging attack on his opponent. Taft, as we’re so often taught in high school American history, infamously battled a weight problem since early childhood (ironically, he lost nearly 140 pounds after he left office). Roosevelt’s jab at his weight was only one of many slights he hurled at Taft and vice versa, but in the end, the bickering cost both men the election. The feud split the Republication party and allowed Democrat Woodrow Wilson to defeat them both.
I don’t know much about the backgrounds of either Corzine or Christi, but from what I’ve briefly gleaned online, it seems that there is much in the way of Christie’s political record and positions that Corzine could attack instead of childishly insinuating that he’s a Super McFatty Fat Cat. While my politics tend to veer left, I think that it’s the mark of a very desperate man who seeks to discredit his opponent not on the basis of his merits or lack thereof, but by his appearance. Would we be so forgiving of this sort of fat-baiting if Christie came out with a campaign that suggests that Corzine “looks like a Jew”?