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alex beam

No room for fat in the Oval Office

The last fat man to be elected president is William Howard Taft, in 1909.Library of Congress

The word is out: Presidential candidate Jeb Bush is following the “Paleo Diet,” eating what the cavemen purportedly ate. Like so many White House aspirants, Bush wants to shed some unsightly blubber before the punishing primary season begins.

Like all fad diets, Paleo is complete nonsense. We’re not sure what the cave people ate, and furthermore, we’ve evolved plenty in the past two million years (to enjoy Doritos? Don’t go there, Alex . . . ). But never mind that. It seems to be working for Jeb, a strapping, six-foot, four-inch fella who, alas, possesses the Stay Puff marshmallow gene. By eschewing enchiladas, and exercising regularly, Bush has supposedly lost 30 pounds.


He’s on the right track. In this race, fat men don’t finish first. William Howard Taft was the last fat man to be elected president, in 1909, and before him, Grover Cleveland, in 1893. During World War I, a German newspaper embittered by Taft’s anti-Teutonic leanings, wrote that “Taft is a very phlegmatic man, from whom one is not accustomed to hear such talk. This may be attributed to his great weight.”

In a famous poll of presidential historians, Cleveland achieved “high average” status, alongside the svelter John F. Kennedy and Dwight Eisenhower. Historians deem the 334-pound Taft, our fattest president ever, to have been merely average, in the company of Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter.

Chris Christie knows this. The New Jersey governor, an undeclared-but-clearly-hankering candidate for president, underwent gastric band surgery two years ago, which drastically reduces stomach capacity. One hundred pounds lighter, he no longer resembles a beach ball bouncing merrily along the campaign trail.

Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, who is expected to declare his candidacy soon, has seen this movie before. On doctors’ orders — Huckabee is a Type 2 diabetic — he lost about 100 pounds a decade ago. No gastric band, no Zone diet, no Paleo; Huckabee lost weight the old-fashioned, meaning the hard way. He started exercising, and ate mainly lean meats and plenty of fruits and vegetables. Unfortunately, he’s gained a lot of his weight back.


If this was easy, we’d all be thin.

The most notorious would-be presidential dieter was Al Gore in 2000. Like Jeb Bush, Gore defaults to pudgy unless he watches what he eats. In 2000, he enthusiastically embraced the then-fashionable, high-protein, low-carbohydrate Atkins diet, named after the late cardiologist Robert Atkins. Gore looked thin all right — too thin. He “won” his famous debates with George W. Bush, but he exuded a nasty smarminess.

I admired the National Enquirer for asking whether Gore was suffering from ketosis, a well-known side effect of the Atkins diet. Radically scaling back carbohydrate consumption sometimes induces headaches, light-headedness, and mental fatigue. “Is Al Gore’s Diet Making Him Stupid?” the Enquirer dared to ask. It didn’t make him a winner, that’s for sure.

I doubt that an overweight woman would fare well in the presidential lottery. Because none of the female candidates is obese, I can conveniently tiptoe past that particular tar pit.

Whether Jeb Bush can keep the weight off during the heat of the primary campaigns remains to be seen. He does have one perceived advantage, of course: his towering height. Americans like tall men, except, apparently, when their names are Mitt Romney or Al Gore. They both lost presidential elections to shorter opponents.


Still, I’d prefer that my future president not be observing a crackpot diet. When the red phone rings at 3 a.m., I don’t want the president barking to the White House steward: “Get me some hummus and flaxseed crackers, please — gluten-free, of course.”


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