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When Fitness for Office Becomes a Weighty Issue

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By David S. Broder
Sunday, October 11, 2009

Every time you think politics has hit a new low, it finds a way to go lower. I thought we had reached the nadir last month when Rep. Joe Wilson of South Carolina shouted "You lie!" at President Obama while he was speaking to a joint session of Congress.

But then the New York Times caught me up on what has been happening in New Jersey. Campaigns there are rarely elevated affairs, but the current battle between Democratic Gov. Jon Corzine and Republican challenger Christopher Christie has sunk to new depths.

As the Times pointed out, a television ad for Corzine, "about as subtle as a playground taunt," shows Christie "stepping out of an SUV in extreme slow motion, his extra girth moving, just as slowly, in several different directions at once. In case viewers missed the point, a narrator snidely intones" that Christie, the former U.S. attorney for New Jersey, "threw his weight around" to avoid several traffic tickets.

As if that were not enough, Corzine, who is 62 and conspicuously fit, has been running weekend five- and 10-kilometer races in cities around the state to demonstrate that he has kept himself in much better shape than Christie despite the 15-year difference in their ages.

I have no rooting interest in the New Jersey race, but the ad hoc Committee of Journalistic Ethics Enforcers has authorized me to condemn this advertising tactic. I very much fear that if Corzine pulls out a victory next month after trailing Christie for months in the polls, the precedent will be set for a really distasteful tactic -- the "fat boy" ploy.

If you believe, as I do, that the beautiful people already have enough of an advantage in this age of television politics and cable trivia, then the last thing we need is a wave of ads highlighting the fact that others are really ugly.

I worry about the many Senate and House incumbents in both parties who have plumped up since they came to Washington. Lobbyists can no longer buy members lunches or dinners, but there still are notable trenchermen among them -- including some prominent men and women who always try to be photographed with their coats buttoned.

It's long been argued that Abraham Lincoln, with his hangdog looks and bad complexion, could never be elected these days. If Stephen Douglas had chosen to ridicule Lincoln's face, rather than debate him on the issues, American history might have turned out very differently.

This is not an issue that Barack Obama can afford to ignore. As the leader of the Democratic Party, he is accountable for the Corzine campaign. He has to know that if he, Obama, were not such a lean, fit and dead-eye basketball player, he could be a target himself.

He may be tempted to emulate Corzine's tactics when he runs for reelection, if he's lucky enough to draw Newt Gingrich as his opponent. But he ought to remember that it could as easily be Mitt Romney or Tim Pawlenty or the calorie-counting Mike Huckabee.

And Democrats with longer memories (or less dire political circumstances) than Corzine's ought to remember recent history. Suppose that George W. Bush, Mr. Fitness, had thrown weight onto the scales against Albert Gore in 2000. Does anyone think it would have taken 36 days to figure out who won?

Or go back to Bill Clinton, who obviously showed the effects of too many stops at McDonald's. Papa Bush and Bob Dole, with not an extra ounce of fat, could have made him a laughingstock.

When I get to New Jersey in a couple of weeks, I'll be intrigued to learn whether there has been a backlash among voters who may be sensitive about their own weight. But the Times reported that Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University poll, said that when voters were asked to say what came first to their minds about Christie, one of the most frequent answers was "fat." Christie has tried to dispose of the "issue" by losing 25 pounds in just the past four months. But he ought to remember what happened with Huckabee in last year's presidential race. He drew as much attention early on in the primaries as a successful dieter as he did for any aspect of his biography. But he lost.

This issue has no place in our politics.

davidbroder@washpost.com


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