The Politics of Presidential Dieting

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Presidential Candidates Stump At Iowa State Fair
Jeb Bush grapples with a deep-fried Snickers bar during the Iowa State Fair on August 14.Photo: Justin Sullivan/2015 Getty Images

The annual political pilgrimage to the Iowa State Fair, which kicked off this week in earnest, promises to be a trying time for the presidential candidates — and not just because of the proud Iowan tradition of waggling phallic fried goods in their faces (though that’s certainly a part of it). This year’s crop of presidential hopefuls is an unusually body-conscious bunch: They are challenging each other to pull-up contests (Rick Perry), bragging about their “gym rat” proclivities (Bobby Jindal), tossing away the garlic bread and scraping aside the pasta (Jeb Bush), and getting involved in push-up contests (Bobby Jindal, again).

You don’t have to look far to find the roots of this new focus on fitness: The man they’re running to replace has been photographed shirtless on the beach by paparazzi. The last guy to win the GOP presidential nomination was a Ken doll for the over-65 set. His running mate showed off his P90x-sculpted bod in Time magazine. Is it any wonder that Jeb Bush asked the vendor who made his fried Snickers bar to throw half of it out before giving it to him on Friday?

If there is one candidate you have not — and likely will not — hear obsessing over her diet, it’s Hillary Clinton. Maybe it’s just that she’s one of only two women running for president. Maybe it’s that the demands on a woman’s appearance are so intense that it’s impossible to imagine an unattractive woman even entering the race. But for the moment, we have arrived, more or less, at a general consensus against shaming female presidential candidates for their dietary habits — or at least, we know there’ll be significant push-back for the idiots who try to. And to think, it only took a lifetime of Hillary enduring horrible sexism about her hair, makeup, and pantsuits to get there! The same cannot be said for the men. They must both try to lose weight and try not to lose their common touch — which requires the not-infrequent consumption of fried food and beer on the trail.

This is not a completely new thing. A century ago, William Howard Taft was tormented by political cartoonists over his struggle with obesity. Bill Clinton was the last president who truly found the balance between fast-food-loving everyman and global celebrity: As president he’d jog to McDonald’s, his soggy-shorted veep panting at his side, but eventually the demands of life in the spotlight (and his own imperiled health) won out.

The scrutiny is a lot closer now. “I am always hungry,” Bush confessed in April to a reporter from the New York Times writing a story about his dude-friendly Paleo diet, which consists of mostly meats and nuts and avoids carbs, sugar, and anything otherwise delicious. Bush probably has bigger things to worry about than making sure his burger comes in a lettuce wrap. But the Times had other concerns: “The rigid abstemiousness runs the risk of putting him at a dietary distance from an American electorate that still binges on carbohydrates and, after eight years of a tea-sipping president, craves a relatable eater in chief.” Really? Does his “rigid abstemiousness” really run the risk? Is there a segment of Americans out there Googling the dietary habits of presidential candidates, positively furious because their president drinks literally the most common beverage on the planet?

Bush is not the only one to feel the weight of these absurd pressures. “[T]here is no delicate way to ask this: Is Chris Christie too fat to win?” ABC News asked last cycle, in one of the countless articles that uncritically raised the issue of bias against overweight people as a legitimate concern for voters. (Post lap-band surgery, a conspicuously thinner Christie was recently photographed pitching in a softball game at Yankee Stadium.) Somehow, in presidential contests, it’s still okay to play into the idea that a person’s physical fitness has something to do with their competence at governing, even though the GOP field itself shows the perils of the “size matters” argument: A then-much-portlier Bush left the governor’s office in Florida with a 60 percent approval rating, while Jindal, who’s at the opposite end of the body spectrum, is the least popular governor in the country.

But it’s hard to feel too bad for the men. After all, they have one strategy not available to a female candidate: the ability to double down on their weight as an act of common-man defiance. Take Mike Huckabee, who lost more than 100 pounds a few years ago and authored a book called Quit Digging Your Grave With a Knife and Fork. In the last few years he’s gained a lot of the weight back. But if Huckabee feels any shame for it, he isn’t showing it. “Let me begin with a recommendation,” Huckabee told fairgoers Thursday. “Pork chop on a stick. Trust me: It’s what’s for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snack.”