Michael S. Rosenwald is a reporter for The Washington Post. Visit his blog, Rosenwald, Md., at washingtonpost.com/blogs/rosenwald-md .
The Washington Nationals will open their season April 1 against the Miami Marlins, and during the fourth inning a man known for being very fat will wobble onto the field at Nationals Park. His name: William Howard Taft. He was our 27th president and, at 340 pounds, our most corpulent.
“Stood trip well,” Taft wrote in a telegram to the secretary of war in 1903, before becoming president. “Rode horseback twenty-five miles to five thousand feet elevation.”
The secretary replied: “Referring to your telegram . . . how is the horse?”
The Big Chief, as he was known, has been dead since 1930, which means he missed Big Macs and Big Gulps, but a 10-foot-tall caricature of him is reentering our Super Size Me world as the newest member of the Nats’ racing presidents. He will hotfoot it against George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt.
As a fat guy myself, I’m throwing my weight behind Taft. I suspect I won’t be alone.
After all, we live in a nation of fat people — two-thirds of the country is overweight or obese. The Nats’ home town is filled with fat lobbyists, fat lawyers, fat politicians, fat reporters, fat think tankers and fat Nationals season-ticket holders, all of whom know that their girth is less preferable, health-wise, to toned abs.
We also live in a time of fat shame. Fat people have their heads cut off on the TV news in reports about the “mounting dangers of obesity,” a message anchors always deliver in stern tones. Fat people need to buy two seats on Southwest Airlines. Fat bellies bulging from under T-shirts inspire first lady Michelle Obama’s crusade against obesity and the cultivation of her precious organic garden. Fat people are gawked at, blamed and discriminated against every day.
A guy at a grocery store salad bar once bumped into me and said, “Watch it, fat boy.” I wanted to say, “Dude, I’m trying.” I walked away.
So Taft represents something of a miracle for us fat people: Someone to cheer for. Someone like us. Someone like America.
The Nats probably don’t realize this, but depending on how Taft is ultimately depicted, the organization has a chance to redefine fat people at a time when new research emerges every day challenging what we think about obesity — a recent controversial study showed that fat people have lower mortality rates — as well as the role of personal responsibility. Many people are genetically predisposed to growing fat. Their size isn’t completely under their control.
So far, the Nats are avoiding the topic altogether. While officials said Taft’s head will be bigger than his competitors’, the character revealed at NatsFest last weekend had a trim, Bradley Cooperesque frame. This fat guy hereby implores the Nats to rethink Taft’s depiction and present him as the tubby, jovial, complicated man he was — someone whose weight was seen not as abhorrent but as an important part of his character, a trait to have some fun with, something that was even (gasp!) respected.
“If Taft were running for president today, the first thing the consultants would say is that he has to lose 50 pounds,” said historian Lewis L. Gould, the author of “The William Howard Taft Presidency.” During the Progressive Era, Gould said, presidential weight denoted gravitas and authority. But nobody today is looking at New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s weight quite like that. Many talking heads openly wonder whether his obesity disqualifies him to run for president.
“They really went at it back in those days,” Gould said of the diet of Taft’s contemporaries. “It was heavy food and a lot of it. This was not Lean Cuisine. Have a steak. Start out with chicken for breakfast. Maybe have two or three or four eggs. During the whole day they would be putting down thousands of calories.”
Though some scholars argue that Taft agonized privately over his weight, in public he used his rotundness not as a social cause — of course, metabolic syndrome wasn’t a medical diagnosis back then — but as a way to enhance his character. He released that telegram about the horse to the general public. “He laughed along with the jokes,” Gould said.
Gould also passed along this charming Taft anecdote from the June 19, 1915, edition of the New York Tribune: “He failed to estimate even approximately the size of the average seashore hotel bathtub, and when he stepped into it the water overflowed and trickled down upon the heads of the guests in the dining room,” the report said. “The entire resort, including Mr. Taft, is today laughing at the incident.”
When he left the hotel, Taft said, looking at the ocean: “I’ll get a piece of that fenced in someday, and then I venture to say there won’t be any overflow.”
What’s remarkable is the tone. Taft wasn’t hated or derided for being fat. He wasn’t blamed. He wasn’t grotesque.
Nearly 100 years later, the tone has changed.
“He isn’t Walmart fat at all,” one online commenter wrote on a Washington Post story announcing Taft as the new racing president.
“It will be all fun and games until Big Chief jumps into the stands and starts taking kids hot dogs,” another wrote. “And when he discovers nachos, there will be hell to pay.”
One commenter offered a playbook for the race: “Taft can roll to the finish line.”
We are mean to fat people now, even though the reasons for fatness are more complex than the blamers know or believe.
The other day, in a Nicholas Kristof column, I read about studies concerning “endocrine-disrupting” chemicals. A mouse exposed to the chemicals at birth was “programmed,” as Kristof put it, “to put on fat.” Another study out in December had this title: “An opportunistic pathogen isolated from the gut of an obese human causes obesity in germfree mice.”
And a 2012 UCLA study showed that heart-failure patients who are fat have less risk of adverse effects (death or the need for a heart transplant) than normal-weight heart-failure patients — yet another “obesity paradox,” researchers say.
Still, the world is disgusted with fat people. “Obese people were rated less favorably, and as more disgusting, than almost all social groups,” another study reported.
Go, Big Chief. Run. The fat American people need you.