Chris Christie's waistline, Marco Rubio's hairline, and our raging obsession with superficiality

The Week
Matt K. Lewis
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Matt K. Lewis

Face it: Politicians are judged, at least in part, for the way they look

It's time to talk about the way our politicians look.

Maybe such superficialities shouldn't matter. But fact is, they do. In the modern era, it's pretty clear that when it comes to the White House, we don't elect bald men, short men, men with beards, men with glasses, or (since Taft) fat men.

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This is unfair, but it's also reality. And it's something to consider when we examine potential 2016 contenders.

Let's start with Chris Christie, who has been in the news this week for his weight.

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It all started when a doctor publicly expressed fears that Christie, whom the doctor hadn't even examined, might die in office. It was clearly inappropriate for her to make such a declaration. And yet, I think I'm safe in saying that Chris Christie's weight would be an optics challenge if he does run.

It isn't a matter of someone being a few pounds over weight. Christie isn't just fat — he's really fat. (The extent of his girth is often hidden by podiums and tight camera shots, but that won't be the case if he runs for president.)

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Consider this question: Would a fat Mike Huckabee have done so well in the 2008 Republican primaries? I think not.

Christie — if he wants to run for president — should lose 100 pounds. (Easier said than done, I know.) Many Americans are biased against the obese — and expect their politicians and celebrities to cut dashing figures. This is not fair, but it is true. Christie's odds of becoming president will greatly increase with every pound he sheds.

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And then there's Marco Rubio's receding hairline. There's nothing uncommon about this. Aside from Paul Ryan, few of us have the hairline we once did. But one suspects this could hit Rubio especially hard, since at least some of his appeal is based on image.

Rubio represents the hopes and dreams of a new generation of leaders. He is handsome, young, and Latino. He physically embodies the desire for a new, 21st century brand of conservatism.

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This is also why Rubio has to run for president in 2016 — and not a minute later. Yes, he's smart and eloquent, to be sure. But would a balding Marco Rubio — one who has been in the Senate for a dozen years — be such a compelling national candidate?

Lastly, let's turn to Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal. Remember his widely derided response to the State of the Union a few years ago? His delivery reminded a lot of people of Kenneth the page from 30 Rock.

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It's hard to pinpoint the problem, but my guess is it might have something to do with the dichotomy between Jindal's looks and his voice. Simply put, his southern accent doesn't match what one might stereotypically expect to come out of an Indian-American's mouth. It may be that the southern thing doesn't travel well — or that some people viscerally feel it's inauthentic (even if it's not).

Ironically, some of these attributes are double-edged swords.

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For instance, Jindal's southern accent probably helped him win over some conservative Louisiana voters. And in Christie's case, there is a sort of "everyman" quality that we subliminally associate with hefty guys.

From Chris Farley to Kevin James to Jonah Hill, we often find fat fellas to be funny, likeable, non-threatening — and probably more trustworthy. Christie's girth hurts him in many ways — but it also has this baked-in benefit.

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Look, my focus here has been admittedly superficial. I'm not saying this is the way our politics should work — only that it does work this way.  And I should acknowledge also my own hypocrisy, since being fat and balding are generally prerequisites to becoming a political writer.

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