By Jeff Greenfield
Maybe I’m just too naive to be writing and talking about politics.
When the New York Post reported that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie had undergone lap-band stomach surgery earlier this year to lose weight, I actually thought he offered a reasonable explanation when he said, “For me, this is about turning 50 and looking at my children and wanting to be there for them.”
“This means he’s running for president,” a top political donor told the paper. “He’s showing people he can get his weight in control. It’s the one thing holding him back.”
You can see how obtuse--not obese, obtuse--I was. On the one hand, avoiding early death. On the other hand, improving your political options. It’s obvious to anyone who’s spent 10 minutes strategizing on cable news what the real motivation must be.
Look, I understand the cynicism about all things political; and the politicians have brought a lot of it on themselves. When an office-holder facing a multi-count indictment says that he has decided to spend more time with his family, the proper response is a horse-laugh. When an accused politician explains that a charge of corruption is “really” an attack on his or her race, religion, ethnic background or gender, the odds that something felonious happened jumps. Protestations of indifference to higher office are hard to take seriously when the “non-candidate” is busily engaged in testing the waters.
And it’s certainly reasonable that a potential presidential candidate would take appearance into account. America hasn’t elected a genuinely overweight president since William Howard Taft, and the recent presidents, from Jimmy Carter on, have been eager to demonstrate their affection for jogging or golf or power biking or basketball (although Carter’s collapse at the end of a road race in the fall of 1979 turned into an unhappy symbol of his re-election prospects).
But just as Freud noted that “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar,” political people really do things at times for reasons that are not political--at least, not in the usual sense. Consider the spate of retirements from the United States Senate. Does anyone think that Maine’s Olympia Snowe doubted that she’d have been re-elected last year? Is there something about her explanation--that she’d had enough of the rancorous partisanship--that gives rise to any doubt? When Michigan’s Carl Levin announced his retirement, was there any reason to believe he was facing a daunting political challenge? Or maybe the fact that he’s been in the Senate since 1979, and will be 80 years old next year, is a pretty convincing motive for stepping down. More broadly, the changing nature of the once-prestigious job of senator--endless fund-raising, legislative gridlock, competing demands to be in Washington and back home at the same time--are convincing a near-record number of politically safe incumbents to self-deport from the Capitol.
I understand that it’s hard to think that normal human motives could govern anyone who is part of the political universe, much less someone who is being judged as a potential president. We have now reached the point where there is never a time-out; last week, an article in Politico used a passing phrase that spoke volumes: “...as 2016 draws nearer...” Nearer? We’re four and a half months into Obama’s second term. So I guess it’s inevitable that every time Christie or any of the “mentionables” eats an ear of corn, it will be seen as an obvious effort to appeal to the Iowa agricultural interests.
So why do I take Christie’s explanation for his weight loss hopes at face value? I have four young grandchildren, with a fifth on the way, and I will soon reach my allotted three score and 10 years. The desire to be around to cheer at their graduations and dance at their weddings is a motivation I deeply understand.