Chris Christie as 'The Elephant': Cruelty as a political issue

As New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was declared the victor in his reelection campaign — a few seconds after the polls closed Tuesday night, so expansive was his win — the countdown immediately began. Fat jokes in 3 … 2 … 1.

By Thursday, there it was on the cover of Time magazine: A side-view portrait of Christie, atop which rested the headline: “The Elephant in the Room."

A triple entendre: Elephant in the room = the obvious thing, being ignored. Elephant = Republican symbol.

And: Elephant = someone supersized. Clever, eh?

Weight has tortured the ample Christie for years, by his own admission, and since he vaulted to the top of the Republican heap as governor and prospective presidential candidate, it has tormented his political career as well.

The subject gained a new airing this week with the release of “Double Down,” a book on the 2012 presidential campaign by John Heileman and Mark Halperin that detailed the relationship between Republican nominee Mitt Romney and a cadre of potential vice presidential selections, including Christie. The chapter on Christie roars with cruelty to the unsvelte.

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Among other things: As part of the effort to keep their identities out of public circulation, the possible picks were given fish nicknames. Christie? Pufferfish. (No one has yet explained, by the way, whether anyone on the campaign deemed it unseemly as well to give the nickname “Pescado” to Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, the lone high-ranking Latino under consideration. Diversity in subterfuge?)

A passage:

“Punctuality mattered to Romney. Christie’s lateness bugged him. Mitt also cared about fitness and was prone to poke fun at those who didn’t. (“Oh, there’s your date for tonight,” he would say to male members of his traveling crew when they spied a chunky lady on the street.) Romney marveled at Christie’s girth, his difficulties in making his way down the narrow aisle of the campaign bus. Watching a video of Christie without his suit jacket on, Romney cackled to his aides, “Guys! Look at that!”

Oh, and the chapter goes on to say, Romney “was grateful for Christie’s endorsement and everything else he’d done.”

Christie has said that Romney apologized for the leak to the authors of documents from the campaign’s vetting of Christie. The governor has also dealt, rather matter-of-factly, with questions about his weight.

Christie told CNN’s Jake Tapper on election day this week that since undergoing lap band surgery in February he had lost half of the weight he hopes to lose (he did not offer any numbers, at least on camera).

"For the first time in 25 years I feel like I've got a pathway, which is really nice,” he said. “Really nice not to be as frustrated as I was before."

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And he turned the conversation to its medical import: "I didn't feel badly at my previous weight, but I didn't realize how poorly I slept until how well I've been sleeping," Christie told Tapper. "(I) woke up a lot during the night, and just didn't get a lot of continuous sleep, and now I'm sleeping a lot better, and it's really bad news for my staff because I have more energy, which they didn't think was possible."

In damage-control mode, Romney said on NBC that Christie’s health was “very solid.” A former campaign aide said Christie’s doctors had attested last year to his health.

Issues of candidates’ health always inspire clashes between their desire for personal privacy and the country’s right to know whether the person they might select is likely to live out the term.

Every presidential candidate of late has been asked for medical records, and the response has tended to be determined by campaign strategy.The younger Bill Clinton did not release medical records; the older Bob Dole did. In 2008, to push aside questions about his age, 71-year-old John McCain released 1,173 pages of medical records to a select few reporters who were allowed to view them for three hours.

In Christie’s case, as with all the potential 2016 candidates, there should and will be looks at health history. Those should be serious, not mocking, because until he either bows out of contention or wins, the issue will be with us.

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As author Timothy Noah wrote, “It seems clear that, whether people argue that Christie's weight is a legitimate issue or whether they argue it's an illegitimate one, we're going to be talking for some time about ... Christie's weight.”

He wrote that in September 2011. The title the New Republic's headline writer put on Noah’s piece?

“Guess Chris Christie’s Weight.”

Twitter: @cathleendecker

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