Now that he's rolled out his own Depression-busting budget, President Obama's place in history as the second coming of FDR seems all but assured. But the president's ambition to convince Americans to swallow "An Era of New Responsibility" (the White House's title for the budget) via raising taxes by a trillion dollars over the next decade is certain to undergo a painful peristalsis in Congress -- especially once the HMO and pharmaceutical lobbies launch their wine-and-dine counterattack against his proposed health-care reforms. If Mr. Obama really wants to improve wellness for all Americans while slimming the deficit by half before the 2012 elections, he might consider adopting another role model from the New Deal pantheon of heroes. I speak, of course, of the muscular millionaire that Time Magazine dubbed "Body Love" (and the subject of my new book): Bernarr Macfadden.
Much has been made of the political and financial parallels between 1933 and 2009, but another similarity links the two eras: a general disgust with and mistrust of organized medicine and the food industry. Just as organic foods, detox regimens and stress-relief yoga classes have mushroomed in recent years, the 30s were a golden age of preventive medicine through exercise and healthy diet, as well as a willingness to dabble in unorthodox therapies. FDR was no exception; he chose his retreat at Warm Springs, Ga. largely so that he could receive hydropathic treatments on his withered legs.
As publisher of magazines like Physical Culture, Macfadden was the Pied Piper of this early alt-health movement. He even played a key role in helping to dispel rumors that FDR's polio had left him "unfit" for the presidency, as Time put it, by printing stories about the then-candidate's manly vigor. (Macfadden's unconventional ties to the White House were many: During FDR's famous first 100 days, Eleanor Roosevelt was Macfadden's employee, editing his parenting magazine, Babies, Just Babies.) By 1933, Macfadden had spent four decades trying to convince Americans that virtually all of their physical ailments stemmed from eating too many processed foods, too few fresh vegetables, and too much, period. At the dawn of the New Deal, more people than ever were listening. Though 25 percent of workers were unemployed, Physical Culture's circulation soared to historic highs, Macfadden led morning exercises each weekday over WOR radio, and his eight penny health food restaurants served such fare as nut burgers and carrot juice to 10,000 people each day.
Macfadden lobbied FDR hard -- unsuccessfully -- to be named the country's first Secretary of Health. His influence came as a self-help wellness guru, convincing his followers to take control of their health by regulating what they ate. He cast overeating as an unpatriotic act, and a Spartan diet as the cure for every malady from tuberculosis to cancer. Countless Americans who heeded his call to switch to a twice-daily eating schedule, essentially a brunch and an early-bird dinner, wrote in to Physical Culture to boast of their soaring energy levels and shrinking doctor bills.
Macfadden's reign as America's unofficial minister of alternative health ended with World War II and the discovery of penicillin. Only in recent years have his most fringe ideas begun to trickle back into the mainstream -- Gwyneth Paltrow's raw-food regimen, the Blueprint cleanse and the rise of the never-say-die calorie-restriction movement can all be traced directly to Physical Culture. Little by little the medical community seems to be warming to Macfadden's theories on diet as preventive medicine. Rodent studies by the National Institute on Aging have shown that fasting and calorie restriction can inhibit Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and Huntington's diseases; relieve otherwise untreatable arthritis pain; and help oncologists zero in on cancerous tumors. Just a few weeks ago a new study indicated that a 30 percent reduction in calories might greatly improve memory.
Considering how well bipartisanship has been working in Washington lately, it may be years before President Obama's health care reforms can make an impact. Even FDR, with his own gargantuan budget and Democratic majority, surrendered in his attempt to initiate subsidized national medicine. But the president's timing in calling for "A New Era of Responsibility" is -- as FDR's usually was -- excellent. America is temporarily parked at one of those rare moments when people are eager to tackle big problems by making big changes in their lives, even in the way they eat, which is why serious people can discuss planting an organic garden on the White House lawn or naming a Secretary of Food to reform the agricultural sector without anyone laughing in their faces.
An easier idea might be for our slim, young president to appoint himself Secretary of No Food, and lead by example: skipping one meal a day until he gets the health care plan he wants, or even skipping food entirely one day a week and donating the money saved to charity. He's even got religious cover: Lent, the Christian season of self-sacrifice, commenced on Wednesday and runs through Easter. I suspect that our Commander in Chief isn't much of an eater anyway, and when a certain overfed conservative talk radio host inevitably starts buzzing about the negative effects on agribusiness, Mr. Obama could quietly remind everyone that Jesus once fasted for forty days. As Macfadden -- who never ate on Mondays and often gave up food for a week or more -- noted during the last great economic downturn, such sacrifices aren't just good for the waistline and the bottom line; they improve lives and don't require a single cent from Congress. In other words, they might be good for America, too.