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Christie's Future

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If Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey runs for president his weight will be an issue. Not his health, but his weight. The question no one is discussing -- at least in public -- is whether Americans will vote for a large person as chief executive.

This is a phenomenon of the twentieth century. In the late nineteenth century, at the height of the Gilded Age, being hefty indicated high status. In an era when many Americans lived their lives hungry, having extras mass meant having extra money, and lots of it. The rich and fashionable who could afford -- as they can now -- to be any size they desired, chose to display their bank accounts on their body. Wall Street was packed with bulky brokers, and the standard dinner at Delmonico's included ten courses. Whereas in Europe there was a lively industry of restaurants selling the leftovers from such meals to the poor, no such marketplace developed here; the rich actually consumed their repasts. Diamond Jim Brady began his evening feast with a modest appetizer of fresh oysters: six to twelve dozen. One periodical estimated his daily intake as 27,584 calories and 911 grams of fat.

As it was with the wealthy, so it was with presidents. This trend reached its height with William Howard Taft, whose girth well exceeded 300 pounds, and had to have a special bathtub installed in the White House for his use.

Taft left office in 1913. By the next decade everything had changed. Not because of politics, but because of the first mass media.

By the 1920s, motion pictures were becoming an American obsession. Steven Ross, in Working Class Hollywood, detailed the rise of the luxurious movie palace, places like the former Grauman's Chinese Theatre or the Roxy in New York, where audiences flocked to see movies at admission prices even workers could afford. Everybody was talking about and trying to emulate the figures on a silver screen.

Even presidents. Warren Harding may be no glamorpuss to our eyes, but contemporary newspaper accounts over and over referred to him as the first cinematic president -- the first chief executive to look like a movie star. When Harding died, thousands mobbed his coffin, especially the newest voters, women, supposedly in a wave of fan nostalgia.

Since Harding, mass media formats have multiplied many times over, as has our infatuation with these images, these celebrities. And no president since then has been anywhere close to the stature of a Taft. Bill Clinton at his inaugural was kidded for his weight ("Al Gore is one Big Mac from the presidency"), despite the fact that he would have looked like a waif at an 1890s meal. And Clinton soon dropped pounds as well.

The real question isn't Chris Christie's weight. It is whether or not the voting public will embrace a candidate who doesn't look as lean as a movie star.