Weighty matters

A fat president might be just what we need to lighten the load.

Published January 11, 2006 11:00AM (EST)

Everything was said that could be said about Ariel Sharon last week as he lay in a coma except the one thing that crossed the mind of every viewer watching newsreel footage of the prime minister, which was, "How much does that man weigh?" (Answer: 255 pounds. And he's 5-foot-7.) He looked like a bull walrus ruling a colony of baby seals. And it made you wonder, how does tiny Israel come up with this family-size guy while the World's Only Superpower struggles along with a wiry little fellow who works very hard on his abs? Is it time we think about getting someone weightier?

We haven't had a fat president since William Howard Taft and that was at the tail end of the Gilded Age, when politicians were expected to be portly. We've had a few semi-beefy ones since (Harding, Hoover), and LBJ carried a potbelly, and Bill Clinton had his moments of bloat, but the American people, now that two-thirds of us are overweight, prefer that the Great White Father be lean, taut, angular, a runner or horseman or cutter of brush. Whereas a guy who looks like he'd be right at home in a Barcalounger with a can of Pabst in his mitt doesn't seem to fit the bill.

I suppose that a compact build indicates some sort of self-discipline, but discipline to do what? Look at Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Pol Pot. None of them was a hearty eater, and for good reason: paranoia. When you're a megalomaniac, it takes away your appetite, thinking of all the folks who'd love to put rat poison in your ratatouille.

It is human to put butter on mashed potatoes and to choose the cheese plate instead of the lo-fat gelatin and to linger over the port wine and chocolates. The man who denies himself might satisfy his hungers elsewhere, promulgating reckless policies, such as a war against a nation that poses no threat to us and torturing those whom he deems enemies and detaining them at his pleasure and marching his troops into a quagmire. A fat man, someone who must heave himself to his feet in the morning and behold a great pile of flesh in the bathroom mirror, the matronly pectorals and the enormous haunches and spare tire, might be more circumspect. He already looks like an emperor, so he would try harder not to act like one.

The advance eulogies of Sharon spoke of his remarkable political shift, from right-wing warrior to moderate compromiser, and you thought, "This is the sort of man America needs right now. Maybe we've been looking at the wrong body type."

Fat men spend more time in contemplation, if only because they get winded climbing stairs and need to sit down. Because they jiggle when they walk, they may be less prone to delusions of grandeur. The fat man doesn't expect his supporters to hoist him to their shoulders. Nor does he hope to sneak around undetected. He is able to face up to his own mistakes. (How can he not? They are hanging over his belt.) He has lived with derision and that gives him a sense of compassion that may be lacking in a Medium or Small. And yet like Churchill, he knows what it's like to rouse oneself to heroic effort. Neville Chamberlain was the elegant guy in the 36 Extra Long who kept backing down from the Nazis. It was the Old Fat Man who spoke of blood, sweat and tears. He knew about sweat.

The top-ranking fat man in government today is Speaker of the House J. Dennis ("Coach") Hastert of Plano, Ill., who for years has been two heartbeats away from the presidency, and one of those hearts has a pacemaker. A mild-mannered fellow who only seeks to do good for the western suburbs of Chicago and for American business, Hastert favors a strong national defense and the education of our children while opposing tax increases of any kind, large or small. He is also in favor of life.

Sitting on the dais behind President Bush at the annual State of the Union address, the speaker has never missed a single standing ovation. A fat man must get tired of jumping to his feet 20 times in a row, but the speaker has always been there, clapping his big meaty hands. He would be the first Dennis to become president. And he would look more like us, the American people. Think it over.

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(Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion" can be heard Saturday nights on public radio stations across the country.)


By Garrison Keillor

Garrison Keillor is the author of the Lake Wobegon novel "Liberty" (Viking) and the creator and host of the nationally syndicated radio show "A Prairie Home Companion," broadcast on more than 500 public radio stations nationwide. For more columns by Keillor, visit his column archive.

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