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Weight Watchers

From Grover “Uncle Jumbo” Cleveland to Chris Christie, a history of smearing heavyweights in American politics.

In New Jersey, any candidate for high office can count on getting smeared over taxes, corruption, the economy, or all of the above. But in this fall's hard-fought gubernatorial race, an unlikely issue has popped up amidst the usual mud-slinging: the portly physique of Republican challenger Chris Christie. Ever since Jon Corzine released his now-infamous attack ad, in which a disdainful voiceover claims Christie improperly "threw his weight around" as a U.S. Attorney, neither candidate has managed to entirely escape the politics of fat.

Asked by a newspaper editorial board if he thought his opponent was overweight, Corzine responded, "Am I bald?" Christie fired back, telling interviewers that his opponent's apparent cheap shot was "beneath the office that he holds." Then, this week, Corzine retreated, telling CNN that it would have been "probably a good idea" for his campaign to have chosen its words differently in the offending ad.

That a campaign and the media would fixate on a candidate's weight, however, should come as no great surprise. Mocking politicians for their girth is an American tradition that stretches back well over a century, to a time when fewer Americans were obese and even fewer had reason to feel self-conscious about it. But being overweight hasn't always been a danger in politics. Although a paunchy look has historically left pols open to caricature, plenty of them have found ways to make their weight work for them. Others, of course, haven't been so lucky.

The most vicious and sustained fat attack in political history was launched by none other than cartoonist-slash-hitman Thomas Nast, himself a latter-day New Jerseyan. Drawing in the influential pages of Harper's Weekly, Nast used much of his ink in the early 1870s to portray Tammany Hall leader William Marcy "Boss" Tweed as the roly-poly symbol of New York City venality.

By lampooning Tweed's round build, Nast insinuated the same ugly attributes about his target that Corzine's team was probably shooting for in their 33-second spot—arrogance and misconduct. (The television ad claims Christie used his position as a prosecutor to get out of driving infractions; Corzine, in defending the ad's language, has said the issue at hand is "abuse of power.") Nast's pear-shaped Tweed, whose ring of cronies was accused of bilking the city out of tens of millions of dollars, was so distinguished by his fleshy rolls and diamond stickpin that the cartoonist didn't even have to give him a face for readers to know who it was. "Obesity was not a national trend then," says Tweed biographer Kenneth D. Ackerman. "To be overweight was a sign of wealth—you had money to buy food." Nast's message was clear: Tweed grew fat on his spoils while the little man withered away. The tubby caricature devastated Tweed's popular image. "My constituents can't read," he famously griped, "but, damn it, they can see pictures."

Back then, a politician's lack of fitness didn't necessarily suggest a lack of fitness for office. Grover Cleveland, yet another Jersey guy, was among the heaviest politicians ever to reach the White House. He had ballooned by gorging on sausage and beer before becoming the governor of New York. As an Albany reporter once marveled, "His skin hangs on his cheeks in thick, unhealthy-looking folds, [and] the coat buttoned about his large chest and abdomen looks ready to burst with the confined fat." Even though he reportedly sailed past three bills, it seemed as if just as many people were charmed by Cleveland's size as were troubled by it. His nieces and nephews lovingly called him "Uncle Jumbo," and members of his Washington circle referred to him as "the Big One." His plump portrayal in cartoons wasn't necessarily ill-intentioned. "Cleveland was fat," says political cartoon historian Stephen Hess. "There wasn't something so funny about it. The cartoonists were fat, too."

As biographer Henry Franklin Graff has argued, Cleveland's beefy figure even suggested a more commanding statesman: "His bulk, in that generation before the advent of weight-control advice, suggested that here was a man of substance, literally and figuratively." (In years past, Christie's own bull-like shape may have played well into his image as a corruption-fighting prosecutor.) But Christie can surely sympathize with Cleveland on this count: The higher his profile, the nastier the remarks about his weight. After Cleveland managed to alienate fellow Democrats early in his second term, "Pitchfork" Ben Tillman, on the campaign trail for Senate in South Carolina, called the president an "old bag of beef" and promised he'd go to Washington and "prod him in his fat ribs."

The hulking frame of William Howard Taft, by most accounts larger than Cleveland's, inspired a similar mixture of awe and mockery as he rose through the political ranks. Taft was compared to a buffalo ("a gentle, kind one"), as well as to a "great battleship … coming into port with her brass bright and plowing deep." His size blew the minds of the Japanese when he and his wife visited in 1900, and it was once remarked that his physique personified America itself. But as muckraker Mark Sullivan noted in his Depression-era Our Times, the good-natured ribbing that Cleveland endured as war secretary took on a "caustic tang" almost as soon as he moved to Pennsylvania Avenue. By the time he finished his single term in 1913, he was well over 300 pounds.

It's tough to tell whether a politician of Taft's size would have a harder time reaching high office in this weight-conscious era of ours. Probably so. But that's not to say that your average voter identifies with the hyper-fit. Bill Clinton's well-known fancy for McDonald's, once satirized on Saturday Night Live, mostly came across as endearing. Casting himself in a similar everyman light to Clinton and, later, to Mike Huckabee, Christie has tried to portray his own weight problem as something he's wrestled with over time. "I've struggled with my weight for a good number of years," Christie said on Fox News the other night, adding that "a lot of other New Jerseyans" have as well. That's not a bad angle to take. After all, there are plenty of Jersey folks, this writer included, who in a perfect world would start their day with a Taylor Ham, egg and cheese sandwich and end it with a cannoli.

Though the vast majority of voters have said the candidates' weight will have no bearing on how they vote, someone in Christie's camp clearly thinks the fat card can be played in his favor. Just days out from the election, Christie took to the airwaves to dare his spindly opponent to "man up and say I'm fat," going so far as to predict he'd be the "big fat winner" come Tuesday night. Christie deserves kudos for the moxie, but history would suggest he be careful. Unfair as it may be, for big-boned politicians, there's been a fine line between appearing powerful and appearing cartoonish.

Dave Jamieson is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.