By all accounts, Gov. Huckabee is funny, compassionate, and sincere in his conservative convictions. Many of his Republican rivals try to hide the skeletons in their closet, from illegal immigrants in their yards to shady billing records in their love nests. Huckabee doesn't run from the ominous figure in his past, which is about as far from a skeleton as you could get. Instead, the governor has gone out of his way to boast about what's in his closet: a rack of suits that no longer fit.
Huckabee has been widely praised, and justly so, for shedding 110 pounds and for speaking out against childhood obesity—a worthy cause that others, including Bill Clinton and Bill Richardson, have led as well. Huckabee's book, Quit Digging Your Own Grave With a Knife and Fork, put him on the political map. Until recent weeks, the only thing most people knew about Mike Huckabee is that he used to be obese. In a country obsessed with his losing weight, he makes the most of it: He's a bigger man because he's smaller than he used to be.
Huckabee's triumph over his own imperfections makes him a refreshing alternative to Romney, who comes across as too perfect, and Giuliani, whose campaign slogan is nobody's perfect and who has done altogether too well in staying on message. Weight loss has some policy benefits, too. At a time when Republicans don't have much else to say to Americans about health care, Huck offers his own story as a do-it-yourself substitute for a credible health-care plan.
Yet, as Huckabee rises from curiosity to contender, a potential downside of downsizing becomes clear. The man is better off than he was 110 pounds ago, but does Mike Huckabee have too much riding on whether he can stay thin?
Appearance is an issue for anyone in the public eye. But for most politicians, weight is a harmless subject of idle speculation. When pundits couldn't think of any other way to guess whether Al Gore would run for president, they joked about watching his waistline. Now he can tip the scale however he likes, and chalk up the difference to the weight of all the awards he's holding.
But for Huckabee, getting thin did so much to get him into the game that keeping the weight off could become an unconscious test of whether he's really who he says he is. Americans don't seem to care how much our presidents weigh. We come in all shapes and sizes and are in no position to judge. But we do tend to judge public figures by the standards they set for themselves. If the first thing most voters associate with Mike Huckabee is that he once was fat but now is thin, they might not know what to think if he turns out otherwise. And if he puts obesity at the center of his agenda, Americans won't waste much time thanking him for telling us what we want to hear before we start watching fluctuations in his weight more closely than his poll ratings.
In the unlikely event that Barack Obama put on some pounds, his team could just say he's trying to quit smoking. John Edwards has already laid the groundwork by pointing out that he has given up Diet Coke. As a cyborg who can morph into any form, Romney doesn't have to worry. But if Huckabee starts to balloon, he's no longer a fresh face; he's another flip-flopping phony diet doctor. It would be like campaigning as Abraham Lincoln and governing like William Howard Taft.
Being under enormous pressure to stay trim only makes the task harder. Sooner or later, almost every celebrity who became famous for losing weight comes to regret it. Kirstie Alley, Elvis Presley, and Anna Nicole Smith are all proof that the worst diet plan in the world is to have everyone watching.
But there's an even better reason not to want a president whose greatest fear is getting fat: George W. Bush. Presidential historians have found no correlation between body mass and greatness. But recent history suggests a direct correlation between how much time presidents spend worrying about keeping fit and how much time they have left to solve the nation's problems. Bush is legendary for his exercise routines. He used to run regularly with Condi Rice, obviously a failed foreign-policy training regimen for both of them. He brings along a mountain bike wherever he goes, and once plowed down a bobby in Scotland.
The clear conclusion: Bush works out, but his policies don't. After seven years, he's in a lot better shape than the country.
Since the American fitness craze took off a few decades ago, the track record for other fat-fleeing presidents is not much better. Bush's father stayed trim by obsessively playing speed golf for four years. That kept him a thin man with an even thinner record. Jimmy Carter's presidency all but ended in 1979 when he became a symbol of American impotence as he collapsed while jogging.