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Column: Feeling the weight of office

WASHINGTON — Chris Christie underwent lap band surgery over President's Day weekend because the three-day weekend gave him time to recuperate, and because no decision he makes can be free of some connection to the presidency. The New Jersey governor checked in for the weight loss procedure under an assumed name and he was out later that Saturday. He only told his chief of staff. He informed the rest of his staff Monday — along with the New York Post.

According to Christie, the procedure, which restricts the amount of food he can ingest, was a personal health decision. After turning 50, he worried that he might not live a full life on his current trajectory. According to an aide, his doctor told him pointedly that it was an issue that would catch up with him soon. Since last fall, he has been contemplating the surgery. Responding to Hurricane Sandy got in the way and delayed the procedure.

There is no reason to think that personal health was not Christie's driving motivation, but it also helps his presidential chances if he decides to run. If a candidate is any good at all, they endure a long period where the moves they make to position themselves for the presidency are indistinguishable from those they would make for other reasons. That's true more broadly of Christie's re-election campaign this year and his second term. Running as a can-do politician who can hammer out hard compromises with Democrats is both his pitch to New Jersey and his pitch to the nation.

There is now a weight-loss tradition in the run for the presidency. Former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour said that if people saw him lose 40 pounds it would either mean that he was running for president or he had cancer. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee made his weight-loss the foundation of his campaign in 2008. He dropped 110 pounds and pounded away on creaky treadmills all across Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina to show that he was keeping up. When Huckabee started to fill out the talk show host's chair in 2011, it seemed clear that his presidential ambitions had taken a back seat to his gastronomic ones.

Christie has always treated his weight with the bluntness he applies to everything else. In the 2009 gubernatorial race, his opponent John Corzine ran an ad attacking Christie for "throwing his weight around" as a U.S. attorney. The spot featured Christie disembarking from a suburban and accentuated the undulations of his locomotion. Christie shot back: "Man up and say I'm fat."

Presidential candidates have to be careful about admitting weaknesses. It's a shame because the good ones are the products of their struggles as much as their triumphs. But in the modern campaign you're only allowed to admit that you're too humble or too generous — faults that are actually attributes. Christie's weakness was there for all to see.

At 5 feet 11 inches Christie is the exact height of our fattest president, William Howard Taft, and Christie was on track to surpass Taft's top weight of 335 pounds.

Taft also endured a lot of jokes. During a debate over whether the president should have an official automobile, a member of Congress said, "The incoming president proposes to abandon horses for reasons that the gentleman well knows: He does not wish to violate the law against cruelty to animals." Taft, who reportedly once got stuck in a theater chair and a White House bathtub, joked about his weight as Christie does. After he lost the 1912 election, Yale offered him a Chair of Law at the university. Taft replied that a chair would be too small, but "it might be all right" if they could offer a "Sofa of Law."

From now until Christie makes his ultimate decision about running for president, he will have to endure punditry about two kinds of numbers: his poll numbers and his weight. This too is a distraction, but on the whole, it at least allows him to play both the role of Everyman struggling with weight as well as a problem-solver doing something about it.

The lap band surgery, according to one source, takes about three years for the patient to reach his or her lowest weight. That means it will be fully paying off just before the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries. Another coincidence, no doubt.

John Dickerson is author of "On Her Trail." © 2013 Slate

Column: Feeling the weight of office 05/08/13 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 8, 2013 4:12pm]
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