Fat chance

Hugh Rodham made the mistake of being a big man in a big scandal. Didn't he know he'd be eaten alive?

Published February 23, 2001 8:00PM (EST)

Fat men should know better than to stumble into national disgrace: There is no recovery for the plus-sized and ethically challenged.

The Hugh Rodham story is about more than hubris, injustice and stupidity; at the periphery, far from the substantive themes, the story is also about Rodham's appearance. It's his belly and his jowls. It's the long, skinny cigar poking out of his lips as he stands beside Bill Clinton in a 1999 photograph taken on a Maryland golf course. It's the waistline of his shorts pushed down toward the green, and the half inch by which his stogie extends beyond the frontier of his stomach. Rodham's involvement in Clinton's pardon mistakes is embarrassing; the image of his involvement is depressing.

Given that we know so little of him at this juncture, what we talk about when we talk about Hugh Rodham is his image -- his body, his face, his look. In media coding, overweight means slovenly, and slovenly means immoral. Immoral means any number of things, so we return to his form for more information: Big jowls mean incompetence, longish hair on an incompetent means hick. Rodham is now in the grid -- in no more time than it takes the eyes to scan a photo.

After eight years, our president has left the office and we need closure. Rodham's role in the pardon scandal offers just that: The Clintons, in all their slick smarts, beat their way out of the Arkansas hills. They had us going for a while -- she sometimes reminded us of Eleanor Roosevelt, he had long pages of Faulkner memorized -- but you can't suppress the truth. The clock struck midnight, the motorcade became a pumpkin and we all got to see exactly where the charming couple came from.

They came from somewhere with fat, ugly family.

Fat people walk a thin line in America. When they stop being jolly, they start being corrupt, hapless, lazy, bribable, mercenary, lewd and tacky. The P.C. movement was little help -- the plump can't be poster boys for anti-discrimination because poster boys are slim and well-muscled. And since overweight people don't assume leadership positions in most cultures, it's hard to imagine things changing soon.

Complaining about fat jokes makes you sound like a complainer: The photo of Rodham on the golf course is rich, and if you're not laughing, you don't get it. Indeed, some of the best humor in the world is fat humor -- look at "The Simpsons"; think John Candy, Chris Farley, John Belushi, Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle. We use this fact to defend prejudice.

This Rodham business is notable because men don't catch hell for their appearance like women do. Every time Katherine Harris said something stupid, it was amplified: It was stupidity from someone with awful makeup. The same happened to Monica Lewinsky and Linda Tripp. Examples are hard to come by because most well-known women are attractive; the ugly ones usually found the spotlight by accident.

So, for a man to get mocked for his looks, he's got to be very overweight. Ugliness alone won't cut it -- the Keith Richards of the world make it into a badge, and the Strom Thurmonds just blend in with the ugly guys invariably sitting next to them. Hugh Rodham made the cut.

It's not entirely clear that Rodham's body doesn't deserve a corner of the story. Bill Clinton's diet, for example, turned out to be wonderfully illustrative, as character details go. Who didn't love or hate him more after learning that the big guy couldn't resist a Big Mac? But there's a difference. Clinton stuck around for two terms, giving us ample opportunity to form a rounded opinion of him. Rodham will presumably drop from the headlines in a few days, forever fixed with the few details we were able to seize upon.

Rodham's appearance makes for great meta-narrative. The pardon scandal is big, and consequently the players involved needed to ascend to the realm of characters. They've apparently done something grotesque and they must look the part. Rodham's belly gives us a pathetic and devious Falstaff, not to mention a final piece of the Clinton puzzle. Publishing a photo of a large person isn't the same as making fun of him, but it would be naive to deny the effect of the imagery. If publications are saving a thousand words for each of these pictures they use, fine, but we should at least be clear about what those words would have said.

By Chris Colin

Chris Colin is the author most recently of "Blindsight," published by the Atavist.

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