WASHINGTON -- One of the leading civil rights organizations working to end discrimination against the obese is taking up the defense of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie amid growing commentary that his weight could pose a problem for his presidential ambitions.
Peggy Howell, the public relations director of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, called the discussion around Christie a "ridiculous" effort to stigmatize the obese and distract from the governor's actual politics.
"I see it as a tactic to try and take attention away from his accomplishments and instead focus on his body size," she said. "Do people have a bias against President Obama because he smokes? Why should there be any difference in supporting a leader who smokes cigarettes or a leader who has a little extra weight on his body? Neither are perceived to be healthy choices."
There was, Howell added, a history of weight discussion being interjected into presidential politics, whether it surround Bill Clinton's diet, George W. Bush's propensity to exercise, Obama's thin frame, or the slimming down of former Governor Mike Huckabee prior to the 2008 campaign -- a diet regime that was interpreted as a prerequisite for a White House run. The Christie chatter simply fit the mold, she argued. But that doesn't make it correct.
"I'm not his doctor, but obviously he is a very active man, and I think it is ridiculous for anyone to believe that he would not be able to serve," Howell said. "This is definitely biased and definitely a stigmatization based solely on his body size."
On Friday, the incessant, endless speculation about Christie's presidential aspirations finally manifested itself in discussion about the Governor's girth, with a slew of columnists deciding to break the seal on the taboo subject.
No consensus was reached. Bloomberg's Michael Kinsley made the case that it presented problems for a presidential bid, mainly because it exposed a lack of personal discipline. Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post reached a similar conclusion but for different reasons, writing that it led to questions about Christie's health. The Post's Ezra Klein took an alternate route, writing that: "there’s no real reason to think that Christie isn’t up to the job of being president, or that he’s at a particularly high risk of keeling over should he take office."
Howell noted that there was really no medical literature tying obesity to personal discipline, saying genetics are instead to blame. As for the health considerations, she was equally insistent that there were no correlations between life expectancy and weight -- though there is strong evidence that artery disease, diabetes, hypertension, orthopedic and respiratory issues, among other things, are worsened by obesity.
Medical issues are certainly fair and common game in the context of vetting a presidential candidate (see: John McCain's history with melanoma). What sets the Christie weight-talk apart is that he isn't running, at least not yet. When asked to assess whether a Christie candidacy would helpful for lifting the stigma over obesity, Howell downplayed the premise of the question.
"If [a successful run by the governor] would significantly change things that would be wonderful," she said. "But I have my doubts that that would have any significant changes. I think it is more likely that Chris will succumb to the pressure of other people to start losing weight. It seems to be an act of human nature. It seems to be what many people who have become popular, famous or well known do, in spite of their size."