Speaking to donors at a San Diego fund-raiser last month, Barack Obama reassured the crowd that he wouldn't give in to Republican tactics to throw his candidacy off track.
"Listen, I'm skinny but I'm tough," Sen. Obama said.
But in a nation in which 66% of the voting-age population is overweight and 32% is obese, could Sen. Obama's skinniness be a liability? Despite his visits to waffle houses, ice-cream parlors and greasy-spoon diners around the country, his slim physique just might have some Americans wondering whether he is truly like them. [...]
While most voters don't base their decision on physical appearance alone, a candidate's height, weight and overall look can play a big role in what Americans perceive as "presidential," says Thomas "Mack" McLarty, former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton.
Throw in the calories involved in a modern-day presidential campaign -- often compared to a beauty pageant and a competitive eating contest rolled into one -- and presidential candidates have an added challenge. [...]
Food faux pas have plagued presidential candidates in the past. On a 1976 visit to Texas, Gerald Ford bit into a tamale with the corn husk still on. He lost the election to Jimmy Carter. In 2003, Mass. Sen. John Kerry was labeled effete when he ordered a Philly cheesesteak with Swiss instead of the usual Cheez Whiz topping.
Sen. Obama's chief message strategist Robert Gibbs served as Sen. Kerry's press secretary during the cheesesteak debacle. A few days later at the Iowa State Fair, famous for its deep-fried Twinkies and beer booths, Mr. Gibbs noticed Sen. Kerry buying a $4 strawberry smoothie. He made a frantic call to campaign staffers: "Somebody get a f-ing corn dog in his hand -- now!"
Sen. Obama drew cringes on a campaign stop in Adel, Iowa, in July 2007, when he asked a crowd of farmers: "Anybody gone into a Whole Foods lately and seen what they charge for arugula?" The upscale supermarket specializing in organic food doesn't have a single store in Iowa.
There's so much to say here about food and weight and perceptions and elitism, about snobby gourmets and cliches and the near-pathological focus our nation has started to have on these issues.
But what I really notice, what I can't help but notice, is how unreal the presidency has become.
Maybe it started with little Grace Bedell, and her letter suggesting Mr. Lincoln really ought to grow some whiskers to disguise the thinness of his face. Maybe it started before that, or maybe it's been part of our national character all along, to want our highest office filled by someone who doesn't just lead, but who looks like a leader: strong jaw, firm handshake, clear gaze, trim--but not too trim--waistline, and all. Add to that, now, an apparent eagerness to sample the indigenous cuisine of every town and county in the land, even when that town or county is famous for its deep-fried candy bars, and you have a recipe for disaster--or at least, for presidential coronaries in later years.
Because, sooner or later, the demands end up competing with each other. Sooner or later we've created an impossible vision of the perfect leader, and everyone on the planet will come up short, because everyone on the planet is an actual human (well, maybe not Dennis Kucinich).
We want a president who has the easy social charm and grace of an A-list Hollywood actor, the deep sensitivity and sincerity of a trusted religious leader, the foreign policy savvy of a decorated military general, the domestic policy grasp of a Wall Street tycoon, and the tact and quiet reserve of an elderly society matron. And instead, too often, we get candidates with the easy social charm and grace of a decorated military general, the deep sensitivity and sincerity of a Wall Street tycoon, the foreign policy savvy of an elderly society matron, the domestic policy grasp of a trusted religious leader, and the tact and quiet reserve of an A-list Hollywood actor, especially one who has been drinking and who thinks the camera is off.
And the fault, dear Brutus, is not in our political stars. And it's certainly not lurking in the leaves of the overpriced arugula.