Question: How physically fit are our political leaders?
Answer: Well, we’ve all seen the cover of Men’s Health magazine last spring, which sported a picture of U.S. Representative Aaron Schock of Illinois in all his washboard glory. Schock, who is on the cusp of his 30th birthday, is the youngest, and ostensibly fittest, member of the House of Representatives. He is also one of the dozen of so congressmen who make 6:30 AM daily treks to the House gym for weight training and sessions of P90X, a video series created by Tony Horton.
And who do you think runs these early morning workout sessions? None other than Paul Ryan, the Republican nominee for Vice President. According to TMZ, Ryan is “totally shredded” and would probably contest Men’s Health claim of Schock being “America’s Fittest Congressman.”
Fitness seems to be a truly bipartisan issue. First Lady Michelle Obama has spearheaded Let’s Move!, a comprehensive exercise and healthy eating initiative dedicated to solving the problem of obesity among American youth.
So everyone seems to be concerned about fitness and weight. Well, as a well-nourished woman packing a few extra pounds, I wanted to know if this has always been a political obsession.
There seems to be a long tradition of scrutinizing political bellies. In 1965, after Lyndon Johnson had his gallbladder removed, he faced rumors that the operation had really been to excise a cancerous tumor. During a press conference outside Bethesda Naval Hospital, he famously lifted his shirt to reveal the telltale jagged scar across his stomach. (TMI-wise, this was topped by the time Johnson showed his penis, which he’d nicknamed “Jumbo,” to a group of reporters.) More than 30 years later, Bill Clinton, dogged at the time by Paula Jones’ sexual-harassment lawsuit, was photographed in his swim trunks – his baby-boomer torso exposed in all its flabby glory – as he slow-danced with Hillary on a beach in the Virgin Islands.
But in Washington as on the Jersey shore, it’s the toned abs that tend to get the most attention. The Kennedys, ever attuned to optics, were known to flash midriff—think of the iconic pictures of the twentysomething John aboard PT-109 or bare-chested Bobby and Teddy playing touch football on the beach. A buff Reagan, running for governor of California, had himself photographed in his pool. In December 2008, as Barack Obama prepared to enter the White House, he was photographed sans top emerging from the Hawaii surf, prompting not US Weekly but the Washington Post to report: “The sun glinted off chiseled pectorals sculpted during four weight-lifting sessions each week, and a body toned by regular treadmill runs and basketball games.”
Yet not all politicians feel it necessary to be buff. As a matter of fact, a study at the University of Missouri found that male politicians should be thinking about supersizing, as people considered fatter men more reliable, honest and better able to cope with the pressures of public life. (Alas, the opposite was true for heavier women – there go my political aspirations!)
But in the case of someone like the obese Chris Christie, governor of New Jersey, hopes for moving up in the political world might be short-lived. Many feel that Christie’s common man physique won’t endear him to the common man, since the common man aspires to be thin. Yet should girth really matter in the voting booth?
Apparently, it wasn’t always that much of any issue. William Howard Taft, our 27th president, was known as “Big Lub” at Yale because of his size. He is remembered by some historians as being the fattest president and his weight problem led to many incidents including loud belches and chronic flatulence. One embarrassing episode involved Taft becoming stuck in a bath tub in the White House, where he had to call for his staff members to use butter to dislodge him from the tub.
So when you’re in the voting booth in November, would you rather opt for the rippling pecs or belly hanging over the belt. Or maybe you should actually find out what these pols believe in and vote based on the issues and not on the abs.