Politics by the Pound

By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, May 15, 2007

The sum total of pounds lost in the great cause of democracy has now clearly exceeded 150. Mike Huckabee is down about 110, Bill Richardson is down more than 30, Rudy's looking trim, and, as pundits galore have told us, if Al Gore sheds more than a pound and a half, it will be universally taken as a declaration of candidacy. What Winston Churchill would make of this I cannot say. He might reach for yet another drink.

The great American pastime is not baseball but moral crusades. This accounts for why we once made booze illegal, why we continue to make war on drugs and why we have turned our attention to obesity -- morbid obesity, as the worst cases are morbidly called. Town after town is virtually outlawing the overweight -- "Fatty, don't let the sun set on you in this town" -- and schools have changed their lunchroom offerings in response. It is a crusade for health, but it is also one about free choice.

The incessant message is that you are overweight because you lack willpower. Willpower is, of course, right up there with morality -- the two being almost synonymous in the minds of many people. Do you have the willpower to turn down bread, butter, sugar, pasta, drugs, recreational sex and money that's not your own? It's all the same, you see -- a slippery slope to Hades, the land of eternal fires. No, please! Take away that bagel.

This explains why a presidential candidate must be trim. To be overweight, even pleasantly so, suggests a lack of self-discipline. That, of course, is utter nonsense, the previous president being an example of all such. Bill Clinton went on his daily jog, more or less maintained his weight, and yet strayed morally in ways that two entire congressional committees and a special prosecutor documented for no really good reason. Maybe Clinton should have stayed fat.

As for the present occupant of the White House, he is as fit as the proverbial fiddle -- albeit an instrument woefully out of tune. George W. Bush used to run; now he bikes. It looks to me that he has gained almost no weight in the past decade. But the discipline he has brought to his body has been missing when it comes to his mind. Not only does he subscribe to silly nostrums -- celibacy instead of condoms for the young and restless, for instance -- but he has also led us into a disastrous war for which there appears to be no end in sight. Still, the man looks good.

Now, though, comes the exciting news that some people -- and you know who you are -- are supposed to be fat. This is what nature intended, what the body wants, what the genes demand. This incredibly good news is contained in a new book by New York Times writer Gina Kolata, "Rethinking Thin: The New Science of Weight Loss -- and the Myths and Realities of Dieting." She calls the current campaign to make everyone feel guilty and to fill the TV screens with waddling people a "moral panic." In this she is surely right. Most dieters fail, not because they are bad people but because -- brace yourself -- they're hungry.

The sad truth is that fat is all we have left. When it comes to free choice, we have slowly eliminated category after category: People do awful things because they cannot help themselves. They are mentally ill. They were abused as children. Their mothers smoked. Their fathers drank. All that's left to condemn is fat, and maybe insider trading, the last frontiers of pure morality and willpower.

But the aforementioned Churchill smoked, drank and was overweight. Teddy Roosevelt, a remarkable president, was a wee 5 feet 8 and weighed about 200 pounds. Helmut Kohl, the former German chancellor who presided over the peaceful reunification of his country, favored a dish called saumagen -- pig's stomach stuffed with potatoes, carrots and pork. His tenure was the longest of any chancellor since Otto von Bismarck, hardly a skinny himself.

I recognize, of course, that for most of us, willpower is what we sadly lack, and nothing in our genes commands pasta instead of veggies. But I would still choose a TR or a Churchill over the trim Mr. Bush any day; and I would point out that Al Gore, overweight though he may be, was right about Iraq and global warming; and I would say that Huckabee, no matter what his weight, remains wrong about just about everything.

But more to the point, I admonish you to remember your Shakespeare and recall that "lean and hungry" is not a compliment but a dire warning about ruthless ambition -- and only half the story at that. There is, alas, not lean and still hungry.

I'm starved.

cohenr@washpost.com


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