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A Beltway insider is downsized

Times Staff Writer

Michael Berman is a Democratic loyalist and lawyer who has helped organize 10 presidential nominating conventions, worked on 11 presidential campaigns and served two presidents. He is also a man known to eat an entire salami, 2 pounds of chocolate or a 40-ounce steak in a single sitting. Once during a starvation diet in a hospital, he hallucinated cheeseburgers. He has weighed as much as 337 pounds.

Berman came to Washington 40 years ago with two addictions: politics and food. Now -- at age 66, 5 feet 9 and a manageable 240 pounds -- he is coming to grips with how his twin passions caused him to gain and lose as much as 1,000 pounds in his life, his weight yo-yoing with every election cycle.

A big part of the problem was the city of Washington and the political lifestyle, Berman said recently over lunch at i Ricchi, a local power spot he loves as much for the food as for the armless chairs that allow his 50-inch waist to expand unhindered. His just-released book, “Living Large: A Big Man’s Ideas on Weight, Success and Acceptance,” is a revealing memoir about being fat in the image-conscious business of politics.

“Red meat seems to correlate with power,” he writes. “I’m not sure how the giant baked potatoes and slabs of cheesecake enter into the equation, but suffice it to say that a fair amount of political persuading and schmoozing gets done over big heavy meals.”

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It is an environment in which Berman grew both politically successful and morbidly obese. The first time he passed 300 pounds was the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. A 1972 hospital fast brought him down to 240; by the next campaign he was in Tampa, polishing off that 40-ounce steak and heading back up over 290.

The most he ever gained in one campaign was 62 pounds in five months during the 1984 presidential race. At the 2000 Democratic National Convention in Los Angeles, he was a behind-the-scenes fixture, scheduling speakers and working tirelessly. What no one knew was that he had a special scale shipped to his hotel room, where he weighed himself conscientiously in a desperate attempt to stop another weight surge.

“Food is a form of legal Valium -- you eat to feel good,” he said from the restaurant, where he is a regular and has arranged for the staff to keep a bottle of his favorite low-calorie salad dressing in the back. “And in campaigns, which tend to be very stressful, I could strap myself in at 7:30 in the morning and still be there at 10 at night, seven days a week, eating on the fly -- lots and lots of pizza.”

Berman’s book arrives as Washington has become more attuned to weight-related issues. The city that sent William Howard Taft soaring to nearly 350 pounds by the end of his presidency has lately taken to warning against the dangers of obesity.

Bill Clinton, known to wolf down nearly an entire box of doughnuts while stumping in New Hampshire, has made childhood obesity his pet cause. Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a potential Republican contender for president, has touted his success at losing 105 pounds in one year. According to a recent count by the Wall Street Journal, there are almost as many bills pending on Capitol Hill that contain the word “fat” as include the word “gun.”

Politics helped keep Berman fat but did not make him so. His problem began in childhood: His mother showed her affection with mouth-watering briskets, pastries and pies. He reciprocated by eating them. Before he started kindergarten, he was sneaking food into his bedroom. Teased and taunted about his weight on the playground, he ate to console himself, never seeming to get enough. Once his mother found the head, skin and skeleton of a smoked fish hidden in his chest of drawers.

By age 13, he weighed 170 pounds.

“Not infrequently, while my slimmer schoolmates were coupled up at the movies or necking in someone’s car, I sat alone at the pizza parlor, wolfing down two whole pizzas and drinking a quart of Coke,” he writes in the book, which was co-authored with Laurence Shames.

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Realizing that girls would reject him socially, he practiced being a good listener and became quite a dancer. Soon he was a popular escort. He didn’t have dates, but he had plenty of friends. (Even today he hosts an annual Valentine’s Day lunch at which he is the only man in attendance. Last time, 80 women showed up, including Carol, his wife of 40 years.)

Although Berman has played an integral part in Democratic politics and served as counsel and deputy chief of staff to former Vice President Walter F. Mondale, rarely has he appeared in photographs or on television. He hated the way he looked.

“Intuition told me that candidates had to be attractive, whereas managers only had to be hard-working, focused, disciplined, shrewd, determined and resourceful. I understood that I had better work my tail off trying to become those other things,” he writes, recalling a lesson learned at his Minnesota junior high school, at age 14, when he managed his first political campaign. Diane Martini lost her bid for student council president, but Berman discovered something important: He might be too fat to get elected himself, but he wasn’t too fat to try to get someone else elected.

His weight did not go unnoticed in professional circles, but neither did it stop him from developing a reputation as a savvy political operator and capable lawyer. Today he is partners with Ken Duberstein, chief of staff under Ronald Reagan, in a lobbying firm that counts among its clients Goldman Sachs and General Motors. He believes he lost only one job because of his size, at a law firm in 1972.

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“As long as I could talk to them about how you operate a campaign or raise money, no one cared if I weighed 2 pounds or 200,” he says.

It took nine years of psychotherapy, several failed fad diets, a good nutritionist and a personal trainer to get him where he is today -- exercising regularly and controlling what he eats. Even so, there have been some lasting consequences.

Berman’s knees are shot, and he has a kidney disease. And no matter how slimmed down he gets, he still conducts himself like a fat man. He arrives early at events to make sure he can get a seat that works for him -- never forgetting the night he got stuck in a chair at the Kennedy Center and dreaded every standing ovation thereafter. On crowded flights, he still buys two airline seats.

Eating remains a joy and a struggle. Even after the tell-all book, he still hides food under his computer, behind the printer, in the wastebasket -- a quirk he cannot explain. Occasionally he binges. After an hour in the yoga studio one recent morning, he rewarded himself with an 820calorie raisin fritter from Starbucks.

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His weight fluctuates. In the book’s foreword he is at 235; on this particular afternoon he’s at 240. He knows because he steps on the scale every morning, recording the result -- as well as everything he eats and every minute of exercise -- in a little spiral notebook he carries in his back pocket. He keeps an eight-page, single-spaced list of his favorite indulgences and their caloric content.

Lunch at i Ricchi is sizable but sensible: a double portion of tomatoes with balsamic vinegar, calamari grilled rather than fried, Swiss chard, a bowl of white beans, a cranberry juice with club soda “for something sweet,” iced tea no sugar and a double espresso. No dessert.

He denies himself almost nothing but limits portions. “I miss quantity,” he admits.

If his book has a message, it is this: Berman will never stop battling the urge to overeat, but he has stopped tormenting himself about it. The scale he consults every morning measures his weight, not his self worth.

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“Like diabetes or flat feet, my fatness is a chronic malady that can’t be cured but can be managed,” he concludes, expressing his triumph most succinctly in the book’s opening pages:

“In short, I am a fat man. But I am also a happy man.”


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