I thought there was something remarkable about New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s furious outburst at former White House doctor Connie Mariano last February, after she suggested to CNN that his evident obesity was “a time bomb,” and that she hoped he would slim down for the sake of his health.
“I’m a Republican. I like Chris Christie. I want him to run. I just want him to lose weight,” Mariano said. “I’m a physician more than I’m a Democrat or Republican. And I’m worried about this man dying in office.” The White House doctor under George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, Mariano revealed that she helped Clinton lose 30 pounds, and suggested Christie could be helped, too.
“If he can overcome this disease, he deserves the White House,” the doctor later told the Newark Star-Ledger. “He’s a tough SOB. And all of us really like him because he’s refreshingly honest. He’s no BS-er. … I want him to lose weight so he can win the office.”
An angry Christie, who had just told David Letterman, “I’m basically the healthiest fat guy you’ve ever seen in your life,” viciously attacked Mariano. “This is just another hack who wants five minutes on TV,” he raged in a tirade that lasted a minute and a half, adding, “She should shut up.” He seemed particularly furious that the doctor had frightened his kids by suggesting he might die young because of it.
I wrote at the time that his volcanic anger, not his weight problem, was the reason Christie would ultimately never be president. His desire not merely to challenge Mariano, but to insult and destroy her credibility, seemed of a piece with a number of public rants and embarrassments where Christie lost control and insulted reporters and constituents over the years.
But now we learn that Christie was about to enter a hospital under an assumed name to have lap-band surgery Feb. 16, in order to do what Mariano advised: lose some weight. It now seems disingenuous that he blamed the doctor for scaring his kids, because Christie admits to the New York Post that he took the extreme measure because of them. “For me, this is about turning 50 and looking at my children and wanting to be there for them.”
The revelation adds a new wrinkle to what, in retrospect, was a bizarre week of mixed messages about his approach to weight in early February. Insisting to Letterman that he was a healthy fat guy while munching a doughnut, Christie revealed that recent medical tests showed his blood sugar and cholesterol levels were normal. But the next day, he told a group of reporters that he was concerned about his size.
“If you talked to anybody who has struggled with their weight, what they would tell you is, 'Every week, every month, every year, there’s a plan,’” the governor said. “The idea that somehow I don’t care about this, of course I care about it, and I’m making the best effort I can.” Christie confessed at the time that “there is a plan” for him to lose weight once again. “Whether it’s successful or not,” he said, “you’ll all be able to notice.”
Now that reporters have noticed – he’s said to have lost about 40 pounds – Christie decided to come clean about the surgery.
But why hide it in the first place? It’s not the same as Mark Sanford “hiking the Appalachian trail,” of course, going awol as governor to cavort with a mistress, but it’s a little odd for a sitting governor to have a secret health procedure – especially one involving an issue he’s struggled with so publicly.
I’m not a Christie fan, but I’ve defended him against anti-fat bias, and the scolds who insist that if he doesn’t have the discipline to lose weight, he doesn’t have what it takes to be president. There’s often a class bias behind fat prejudice, and I could imagine voters finding something refreshing about Christie thumbing his nose at fat-shamers. Jon Corzine’s efforts to make Christie’s weight an issue in the 2009 governor’s race obviously backfired.
It’s not clear how the revelation of Christie’s secret surgery will play politically. It could compromise the governor’s valued and bipartisan reputation for candor. (Mariano called him “refreshingly honest” while urging him to confront his weight problem publicly). But the news of the secret surgery could also make voters even more sympathetic to Christie’s human frailties. It seems to reflect the shame so many overweight people feel about their weight.
One thing no one should believe, however: Christie’s claim that his surgery had nothing to do with his 2016 plans. “I know it sounds crazy to say that running for president is minor, but in the grand scheme of things, it was looking at Mary Pat and the kids and going, ‘I have to do this for them, even if I don’t give a crap about myself,’” he said. But New Jersey insiders disagree. A top political donor told the New York Post: “This means he’s running for president. He’s showing people he can get his weight in control. It was the one thing holding him back.”