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Fat Presidents: A Survey

Amid speculation that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie will enter the presidential race, there's been some talk about the weight issue. How does it affect his health? Would voters judge him harshly for it? (Jon Corzine tried and failed to make an issue of it, obliquely, in the 2009 gubernatorial election.) I prefer the historical approach. Who, besides William Howard Taft (300+ pounds)--who may or may not have gotten stuck in the White House bathtub but certainly arranged for a bigger one to be installed there--were America's fattest presidents?

Before its demise, George magazine (where I was a contributing editor during the late 1990s) published a Book of Political Lists, edited by Blake Eskin, that listed the presidents according to body mass index. A BMI of 25 pegs you as overweight and a BMI of 30 as obese. The medical definition of "obese" is, I think, too unforgiving; it includes a lot of people whom we civilians would judge merely overweight. But at least the medical definition recognizes gradations of obesity. Below 35 is "class one." Thirty-five to 40 is "class two." And over 40 is "class three." You really don't want to be class three.

I don't think of Christie as obese, and I don't know his BMI, but it's surely over 30. What kind of presidencies do the over-30 set produce? Here is a table matching the five medically obese presidents with their BMIs and how they fared in Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.'s 1996 "greatness" rankings of all the presidents based on a survey of 32 experts (most of them academic historians). The two presidents we've had since Schlesinger's ratings were compiled (George W. Bush and Barack Obama) are both pretty obviously not medically obese, so we need not concern ourselves with them here. (For comparison's sake: Bill Clinton, at 28.3, was medically "overweight," though, as in so many things, dangerously close to the line.)

President BMI Schlesinger "greatness" score
Taft 42.3 (obesity class 3) 1.52 (average)
Cleveland 34.6 (obesity class 1) 2.24 (high average)
McKinley 31.1 (obesity class 1) 2.11 (high average)
Taylor 30.2 (class 1) 0.88 (below average)
Theodore Roosevelt 30.2 (obesity class 1) 3.31 (near great)
Obese presidential average 33.68 (obesity class 1) 2.012 (high-average)

There are two lessons here. The first is that even with Taft skewing the average upward, our fat presidents weren't very fat. Besides Taft, the only one who threatened to break out of obesity class one was Grover Cleveland. The second lesson is that obesity is, if anything, a slight presidential plus, with Zachary Taylor pulling the ranking down, Theodore Roosevelt pushing it back up, and Grover Cleveland and William McKinley nudging it a little higher.

The judgment of history, then, is that fat presidents, though not above average, are in the high range of average.