The Measure of a Man

Michael Berman, author of
Michael Berman, author of "Living Large," served by Jose Reyes at the Four Seasons. "The idea that you can slim down by willpower is a bunch of horse manure," he says. (By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)
By Laura Sessions Stepp
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 13, 2006

For more than six decades, Michael Berman has lived as a fat person. At 5 feet 9 inches, he has weighed as much as 332 pounds. He has been known to eat three racks of ribs at one sitting, or a 40-ounce steak, or a whole box of saltines. In 1986, after dropping a few pounds, he spent $2,100 on three custom-made, pinstriped suits in gray, blue and brown. By the time the suits were ready, 10 weeks later, they no longer fit. Eleven years after that he gave them away, having never been able to wear them.

A highly successful political campaigner and Washington lobbyist, Berman, 66, doesn't deny the dangers of fatness or the urgency of encouraging people to exercise and eat healthier. He acknowledges that with 60 percent of the U.S. population overweight or obese, and the rate of obesity increasing particularly dramatically in children, being fat has serious consequences for the health of individuals and the economy. He'd like to see government and private resources used for a public education campaign similar to that for smoking and seat-belt use.

But forget the notion that fat people can become slim, he says in a part memoir, part self-help book scheduled for release this week. They can -- and should -- manage their weight. They can -- and should -- find an exercise program they can stick with. But fat adults will always be fat. They are in the grips of a disease over which, in the end, they do not have complete control.

This is not likely to be a popular message among those who manage their daily lives with BlackBerrys, filter out porn on their kids' computers, block negative information coming from government sources. Is he trying to say that the fatties who sprawl over airplane seats could not shrink to a reasonable size if they just stopped wolfing down those Big Macs?

Yes, that's what he's saying. "The idea that you can slim down by willpower is a bunch of horse manure," he says. If "nonfat" Americans could be convinced of this, perhaps they'd start relating better to fat Americans. And if fat Americans understood why they're fat and accepted that they will always have to shop at Rochester Big and Tall or Lane Bryant, they could begin "Living Large," as Berman called his book.

Big Man on Campus

A Minnesota native, Berman has lived large for a long time among Washington's elite. He served as counsel and deputy chief of staff to former vice president Walter Mondale, acted as scheduler for six Democratic conventions and, in 1989, formed a bipartisan lobbying firm that today counts General Motors and British Petroleum among its clients. During the Clinton years, he was on a "special access list" that gave him virtually unrestricted entree to the White House. He and Carol, his wife of 40 years, live in the gracious Colonnade condominiums in Northwest Washington and entertain powerful friends they've accumulated over the years.

Being a BMOC means you're treated differently than the masses. The Palm restaurant, noted for its creamed vegetables, serves Berman steamed spinach and broccoli. The chef at I Ricchi created a dish of roasted vegetables for him. The maitre d' at Georgetown's Four Seasons restaurant knows that for breakfast meetings he prefers the table one row from the windows near the center of the dining room; the servers never place a basket of toast on his table.

But politics is dangerous for anyone hoping to maintain a reasonable weight, Berman says over breakfast at the Four Seasons.

"The cocktail parties are not difficult," he says, his shirt sleeves pushed up to reveal a large yellow Corum wristwatch. He attacks a dish of large blueberries, then an egg-white omelet and four wide slices of turkey bacon. "I can get a glass of Diet Coke, mingle, and only occasionally grab an hors d'oeuvre as it goes by. What is hard are the large sitdown dinners where you can't control the menu. Or where you're with 3,000 other people, you order a vegetarian meal, it takes forever to arrive and meanwhile there's a basket in front of you full of bread."

He is comfortable with being different, now. But he has suffered through countless weight swings, 20 diet programs, a kidney infection and knee surgery. And it has taken him eight years of counseling, the careful attention of a personal trainer/nutritionist and the sustained support of his wife to get to that place.

Berman first realized he was not just husky, but really fat, when he was 13, weighed about 170 pounds and was standing in the shower of the boys' locker room one day after gym class in his home town of Duluth, Minn.

"I hated gym," he recalls in "Living Large: A Big Man's Ideas on Weight, Success and Acceptance," written with Laurence Shames. "I couldn't climb ropes, couldn't do pushups. . . . I dreaded being naked in the shower with the other boys. . . . I hid as much as possible, showered as quickly as I could, and pulled a shirt on even before my skin was fully dry."

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