Why no one’s talking about Newt’s weight

The press corps only pays attention when "regular guy" politicians like Chris Christie are fat

Topics: 2012 Elections, Newt Gingrich,

Why no one's talking about Newt's weightNewt Gingrich (Credit: AP)

Unlike past presidential primary elections, we are witnessing an almost unprecedentedly volatile nominating process in the Republican Party. Every six weeks, it seems the GOP has a new presidential front-runner. That means every six weeks, we get a new spate of “untold” stories looking harder at that front-runner’s candidacy. Last month, with Herman Cain leading the pack, it was buzz about his past sex scandals. Before that, with Mitt Romney ahead, it was a look back at his storied career as a job-killing corporate raider. Before that, when speculations focused on Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, we got the scoop on his marriage history.

No doubt, the fast-shifting media scrutiny of flavor-of-the-week candidates reflects the ahistorically fluid nature of the 2012 race — and it tells us whether today’s media is truly equipped to deal with such volatility. Even more important, though, is how the herky-jerky ADD-style coverage also inadvertently provides a rare glimpse into the unspoken cultural biases that frame our national political discourse. Indeed, because the focus of political coverage is shifting on a week-by-week basis, we are getting to see in real time how — and why — the media’s standards of coverage shift, too.

Just consider a comparison of the coverage of once-front-runner Gov. Chris Christie and current front-runner Newt Gingrich.

Christie, you’ll recall, is the first-term New Jersey governor who was repeatedly pressured by Republican elders to run for president. Heading into the early fall, polls showed he was leading the GOP field despite refusing to announce a candidacy. During the media scrutiny that followed him, he faced a wave of intense questioning and unduly harsh criticism not about his lack of executive experience nor about his policy positions — but about his weight. From liberal pundits like the Washington Post’s Eugene Robinson to traditional establishment outlets like ABC News Serious Media Voices insisted with a straight face that that the major downside of Christie’s potential candidacy was his physical size.



Fast-forward just three months to the present moment in which Gingrich has replaced Christie atop the polls. Overweight for most of his political career, the former speaker has served alongside Rush Limbaugh as the modern era’s single most iconic caricature of the Fat White Conservative Man. Indeed, Gingrich’s girth has so thoroughly defined his image in the American psyche that he was famously lampooned by none other than “Saturday Night Live’s” Chris Farley.

Yet, to date, the front-runner coverage of Gingrich hasn’t mentioned his weight problem at all. Somehow, the same media voices who sententiouly insisted that “Christie’s problem with weight ceased being a private matter when he stepped into the public arena” have nothing at all to say about Gingrich’s comparable corpulence. Instead, what national media scrutiny he has drawn has been mostly focused on policy and substance.

In terms of voter education, it’s certainly good news that Gingrich’s record is getting some real (albeit belated) attention. But the difference between how Christie was covered and how Gingrich is covered raises a disturbing question: Why the two standards?

A glib reporter might just say that it’s because Christie is fatter than Gingrich — that, essentially, like obscenity, there’s a mysterious “you know it when you see it” standard for Unacceptable Weight that Christie violates but Gingrich somehow doesn’t. But this hardly makes sense considering that Gingrich is much more nationally famous for being fat than Christie ever was. (By the way, for those who see Gingrich at a podium and believe he might not actually be overweight, think again; he’s able to better hide some of his weight than Christie because it’s at the bottom of his torso, but as this recent photo shows, the weight is still very much there.)

Another member of the press corps might then insist that’s what the double standard is really all about — perception of newsiness. Gingrich, goes this argument, has been famous for being fat for so long that his weight is no longer an issue of national importance, while Christie’s most certainly is because the governor isn’t well known. But, then, just like you can’t be half pregnant, obesity either is a serious health issue that voters should consider when selecting their president, or it isn’t such an issue — regardless of whether the obesity is older or newer. Logically (and medically), it’s hard to argue it’s a serious issue for one candidate (Christie) but not for another candidate (Gingrich) — and it’s even harder to argue that it’s somehow less of a health issue for the older of the two men.

Without those two spurious explanations, we are left to behold the media factors that so consistently shape news coverage but are almost never uttered in polite company: cultural biases and social class solidarity.

Though Christie has a long history inside the American establishment as a top corporate lawyer, lobbyist and elite political patron, the national press corps nonetheless saw him as the opposite. Something about his thick New Jersey accent, his middle-class Catholic roots, his blunt regular-guy speaking style, and his geographic base outside the Beltway made him seem all too much the working-class outsider — all too un-Washington. That’s the very archetype that the national press corps despises, disparages and marginalizes.

This is, after all, the press corps whose dean, David Broder, impetuously fumed President Bill Clinton “came in here and he trashed the place — and it’s not his place.” It’s the same press corps that typically presents “national” news, opinion and analysis as only that which comes exclusively from wealthy journalists, pundits and program guests living in Washington or New York City. And so because the New Jersey governor wasn’t perceived to be a creature primarily of that elite culture, class or geography, that press corps implicitly presented his rotundity as physical proof that he was an Overweight Regular Guy Slob not qualified to be president.

Gingrich, by contrast, is the personification of a Washington Insider, a man whose pedigree as a legislator-turned-influence peddler and frequent television bloviator is among the most respected in the nation’s capital. Consequently, his Christie-esque weight is not portrayed as a concern because it can’t be used to validate any larger cultural criticism  — or, more precisely, it can’t be used to validate any kind of criticism that the Washington press corps is interested in airing. Sure, the former speaker’s crony credentials juxtaposed with his obesity make him the flesh-and-blood personification of a Thomas Nast cartoon of a bloated fat cat — but that kind of anti-elite critique is not permitted inside a national press corps populated by similar cartoon characters.

Not surprisingly, we’ve seen this very double standard before. When Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee ran for president in 2008 as an anti-Washington populist, we were repeatedly reminded of his struggles with weight. Yet, when it came to longtime Washington lobbyist-turned Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour — a man who openly describes himself as a “fat redneck” — the press corps never brought up his weight as a concern when he considered running for president in 2012. The difference was that Huckabee was running against Washington and its aristocratic culture while Barbour so clearly represent that city and that culture.

None of this, of course, is to argue that a presidential candidate’s weight should be a monumental issue (as should be obvious from this essay, I personally believe that while policy criticism of Huckabee and Christie’s conservative records were more than justified, criticism of their weight was highly offensive). However,  it is to suggest that if an issue is deemed important for one candidate, it should be important — and equally scrutinized — for all candidates.

The fact that it isn’t — the fact that such standards are so selectively applied — tells us a deeper and more disturbing truth about bias in our political news. It tells us that that in many cases, the most powerful kind of media bias is not the much-lambasted, much-publicized partisan slant of Republican-loving Fox News or Democrat-glorifying MSNBC. It is instead most often a stealth cultural, geographic and class bias — a bias for those who seem to represent the Washington aristocracy and against those who seem to represent the commoner.

David Sirota

David Sirota is a senior writer for the International Business Times and the best-selling author of the books "Hostile Takeover," "The Uprising" and "Back to Our Future." E-mail him at ds@davidsirota.com, follow him on Twitter @davidsirota or visit his website at www.davidsirota.com.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>