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COLLINS: An issue of fitness for office

  • This artwork by Jennifer Kohnke relates to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who has been critical of the congressional response to Hurricane Sandy.

Our topic for today is: How much do we care about physical fitness in an elected official? Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey recently had a cross-continental shouting match with Dr. Connie Mariano, a former White House physician who said the governor's weight is "almost like a time bomb waiting to happen," adding, "I worry about this man dying in office."

Mariano's concern is probably not at the nail-biting, walking-the-floor-at-night level. After all, she lives in Arizona, and there must be tens of thousands of overweight executives in need of attention, scattered all over the landscape between there and New Jersey. The governor's size also does not appear to be a pressing concern for the majority of his constituents, who currently seem so enamored that they'd vote him back into office if he was too large to get out of the upstairs bedroom without assistance from emergency responders.

The governor says he's very healthy and that "there is a plan" for losing weight. But there is also a plan for totally funding the state employee pension system. I wouldn't hold your breath.

There's a national accord that thin is generally better than fat. However, it's hardly the biggest issue when you're picking a governor. There are citizens all over the country who would trade their more compact leaders for Christie in a second. Just ask somebody in Pennsylvania. Or Illinois. The guy in Florida has the physique of a greyhound and the state is totally miserable.

In 2006, New Yorkers elected Eliot Spitzer, a man who could not possibly have looked fitter. We probably had the best BMI in the National Governors Association. Just over a year later, he was gone in a sex scandal. You had to wonder if exceptional leanness might occasionally be accompanied by exceptional friskiness. As we all know, a governor in South Carolina once vanished for what his staff claimed were body-toning hikes on the Appalachian Trail when he was actually committing adultery in Argentina.

Being a governor is not normally a physically demanding job. You certainly have your crises — Christie got through a terrible one during the Sandy storm. But day to day, week to week, the effort level is often pretty much what you choose to make it.

"Getting to be governor is the hardest part," former Gov. William Weld of Massachusetts once told me. "I used to go on vacation for a week at a time, and I wouldn't even call in." After the Spitzer scandal, New York was virtually governor-free for several years, due to one thing or another. It wasn't terrific, yet we got along.

New Jersey is currently awash in interesting political arguments. One of its senators, Robert Menendez, is in a veritable typhoon of ethics allegations. The other, Frank Lautenberg, is trying to decide whether to run for re-election at age 90.

Lautenberg's refusal to get out of the way and retire has posed a great inconvenience for Mayor Cory Booker of Newark, who finally got tired of waiting and just sort of assumed. "I've announced my intention to run, but the reality is .<TH>.<TH>. we've got a good senator," said Booker. "He's been loyal. He's been there for a long time. And I think he's got a decision to make."

There's nothing like "he's been loyal," as an encomium for 30 years of public service. Although it's way better than Lautenberg's defense of his colleague Menendez. ("If there are infractions as they are reported, it's too bad.") Running for office in your 10th decade might pose performance questions itself. Except that being in the Senate makes being a governor look like working in the salt mines. Most weeks all the critical legislative duties could be carried out while undergoing a colonoscopy. Lautenberg, who's very wealthy and well known, is unencumbered by the normal senatorial need to raise money, get publicity and run from one 10-minute meeting to the next like a headless chicken. (Booker would be terrific at those parts.) Anyhow, if all else fails, Geraldo Rivera is looking at the Republican nomination.


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