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A few weighty lessons for Chris Christie from President Taft

February 8, 2013 by NCC Staff


Potential presidential candidate Chris Christie is fighting back after a doctor criticized his body weight. But could he learn a few lessons in tact from William Howard Taft, the largest president in history?

taftchristieIn case you missed the story, the current New Jersey governor had some harsh words for a former White House medical staffer from the Bill Clinton era who said Christie would present a health risk as a president.

"I'm worried he may have a heart attack. I'm worried he may have a stroke," said Dr. Connie Mariano, in an interview with CNN.

Mariano said she worked with then-President Clinton to stay away from junk food and keep on a steady exercise regimen, despite her own political leanings.

"I'm a Republican. I like Chris Christie. I want him to run. I just want him to lose weight," Mariano said. "I'm a physician more than I'm a Democrat or Republican. And I'm worried about this man dying in office."

That last comment set off Christie, who had been stuck discussing his own weight all week after he ate a doughnut on David Letterman’s TV show.

"She should shut up," Christie said on Wednesday, adding that Mariano doesn’t know his family history, and that one of his sons asked him if he was going to die. "This is just another hack who wants five minutes on TV," Christie added.

Related Story: Clearing up the William Howard Taft bathtub myth

About 100 years ago this month, another larger-than-life political figure, President William Howard Taft, was ending his one term in office.

Taft had endured weight questions in the media since 1904, about four years before he became president, and his weight was nearly a national obsession during his presidency. His weight was also an issue in his disastrous re-election campaign in 1912.

In the long run, though, Taft was resilient: He won one presidential election in 1908; defeated his former friend, Theodore Roosevelt, for the 1912 Republican nomination; and made a unique political comeback after his 1912 presidential loss by being named chief justice of the United States.

Taft’s strategy was to laugh off some of the public criticism about his girth.

Unlike Christie, it would be unusual for President Taft to shout down a reporter or former White House staffer. But like the New Jersey governor, Taft did discuss this weight-loss issues and dieting in public.

For example, he told The New York Times in late 1913 that he consulted a doctor at Yale and was on a diet that cut back on carbohydrates and alcohol and focused on proteins.

Taft also said his weight problems were related to serving in public office.

“It was in 1892 that I took the oath as a Circuit Judge in the old Burnett House in Cincinnati. I then weighed 270 pounds, just my present weight. And now, after nine months as a plain old private citizen I am back at the old 1892 figures, and I certainly feel fit and fine as a result of it,” Taft said.

According to one website with historical weight data on Taft, the future president’s weight went over 300 pounds when he became secretary of war for President Roosevelt. He dropped a lot of weight soon after that, but went over 300 pounds again when he ran for president and won the 1908 election.

President Taft weighed nearly 350 pounds at one point, but then he lost nearly 70 pounds after losing the 1912 race to Woodrow Wilson.

However, President Taft had little control over how his weight and physique were portrayed in the press. In his run for the White House and the early years of his administration, Taft was written about as a big eater with a jolly demeanor and a big smile. During the 1908 campaign, Taft’s Democratic opponent, William Jennings Bryan, was also portrayed as overweight in political cartoons.)

Four years later, Roosevelt’s campaign criticized Taft’s weight when the Roosevelt ran as a third-party candidate. To set himself apart from Taft, Roosevelt said he was healthy as a “bull moose.”

Taft was reluctant to attack Roosevelt, let alone react to criticism of his own weight. According to contemporary accounts, Taft only went on the offensive in the 1912 campaign after his chief adviser, Archibald Butt, died in the sinking of the Titanic.

The 1912 election was historically bitter, and Taft returned to Yale after his defeat. He spent the next slimmed-down nine years teaching and working with Republicans. President Warren Harding then nominated Taft to the Supreme Court in 1921.

One theory today is that Taft’s major health scare in office was really sleep apnea, which is related to weight issues. In a 2003 paper, Dr. John Sotos reviewed the Taft archives and found many stories of the president falling asleep privately and public while in office. The sleep issues went away when Taft left the White House in 1913 and went on a diet.

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