A New Message for Old Friends

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 1, 2006

It was billed as a personal conversation about his own health and fitness battles, but when former president Bill Clinton stood before a group of governors yesterday, he just couldn't help getting wonky.

His forum was the National Governors Association, the organization he chaired when he was governor of Arkansas and was rising to national prominence, and one with which he still has a special bond. He was greeted as family, introduced generously by the current governor of Arkansas, Republican Mike Huckabee, who serves this year as the NGA chairman. And when it was over, it was hard to get him to leave the room.

Clinton, who underwent heart bypass surgery in 2004, and Huckabee, who lost more than 100 pounds after a health scare, have teamed up to combat childhood obesity -- even though, as Huckabee noted, Clinton has campaigned and raised money for every one of his opponents in Arkansas and that he had done the same when Clinton was in office.

When Clinton took the stage, he responded. "I was backstage listening to Mike's introduction . . .," he said. "I thought, the reason we're both here is that we were total failures in those efforts."

Then he was off, imploring governors to join the crusade to change the culture of food consumption to reverse the epidemic of obesity, which has led to a startling increase in diabetes among children and which consumes an increasing share of the nation's health care budget.

He is haunted, he said, by the sight of a young woman in a wheelchair, "who couldn't have been a day over 35," whom he had met in Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina, her leg amputated because of diabetes. "If we don't do something about it, we're going to have a terrible, terrible problem."

Huckabee had said he asked Clinton to speak in personal terms about his health care journey, but the former president spoke only fleetingly about his battles with obesity, fast food and heart problems. He noted how many McDonald's fries he had consumed over the years (and how they would be less unhealthful but too expensive if cooked in olive oil) and how, as an overweight teenager, he learned that physical education in school was "something you had to do if you weren't cool enough to be on one of the sports teams."

But what he really wanted to do is impart what he has learned since his surgery and enlist the governors in the cause. What followed was a tour of the horizon, a mini-lecture on food, nutrition, health care, competitiveness and lifestyle.

Clinton talked about how rising health care costs threaten the country's economic competitiveness. He said obesity accounts for 27 percent of the increase in health care costs since 1987.

The feel-your-pain politician was empathetic toward low-income families who load up on fast food; unhealthful foods are both cheap and filling, he said, and offer an inexpensive way to give children calories. He described the changing composition of the American diet and of food itself, and how the body metabolizes fructose, a soft-drink sweetener, differently and more destructively than cane or beet sugar.

There is no quick solution to the problem. He and Huckabee have set a goal, he said, of halting the rise in childhood obesity by 2010 and reversing it by 2015. The closest he came to a prescription was when he pointed to Huckabee's example.

"Look at Huckabee," he said. "You've got to consume less and burn more. There is no other alternative. And to do that, you've got to change the culture."

Questions from the governors consumed another half-hour. "I was one of them when I was a teenager," he told Alaska Gov. Frank H. Murkowski (R), who asked how to encourage healthful eating without destroying the self-esteem of overweight children.

Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. (R) asked what the food industry can or will do. Clinton said what doesn't work is offering a few "heart healthy" items on restaurant menus. He was quick to add, though: "It works for me because I nearly died. . . . I'll look for them. But the whole objective here is not to let too many people get in the fix I was in."

When the hour was over, Clinton began a long, slow walk around the big, square table, greeting individual governors, embracing old friends, posing for photos and fielding questions from reporters.

"Thanks, guys. Thank you, guys," spokesman Jay Carson said several times, to no avail. Clinton was in no hurry to leave. In fact, long after Huckabee had adjourned the winter meeting, the former president was still holding court.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company