Weight Led Governor To Surgery

Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey ascended to become one of the country’s top political stars almost in spite of his weight — dismissing those who questioned whether his size disqualified him for higher office as “ridiculous” and “irresponsible.”

Now, like some overweight politicians before him, Mr. Christie has embarked on a major effort to shed pounds at a time when his eyes are on the presidency. Saying that “a whole bunch of other things” had not worked, he revealed on Tuesday that he had undergone weight loss surgery three months ago. He is now 40 pounds lighter.

Mr. Christie, a Republican, said concerns about his family, not politics, drove him to undergo the “Lap-Band” procedure, in which a silicone band is placed around the stomach to discourage overeating.

His staff and even his closest political advisers said they had not known he had the operation or had even considered having it.

But in the image-conscious world of politics, the questions about what effect slimming down would have on a possible presidential run immediately dominated the discussion of his move. Mr. Christie’s heft has been part of his brand. Would he risk losing some of his Everyman appeal along with the weight?

The governor swatted those questions again. “Whatever size I happen to be when I have to make decisions about what to do next in my career, I doubt that will play any role or effect in what I decide to do,” he told reporters massed outside an event in Newark. “It’s not a career issue for me; it is a long-term health issue for me.”

Fair or not, weight has been often used as a metaphor to judge Mr. Christie.

To his critics, it represented his lack of discipline and his bullying manner — an advertisement by his opponent in the 2009 governor’s race showed unflattering pictures of his size and accused him of “throwing his weight around.” To his supporters, it softened his edges and made him more relatable — Mike DuHaime, his chief political strategist, has often said that voters want someone “just like them, only smarter.”

“I think Governor Christie has almost played off the fact that he is big,” said former Gov. Edward G. Rendell, a Pennsylvania Democrat who has struggled himself to shed unwanted pounds.

“It has helped establish him as a real person,” he said, noting that people are skeptical of perfectly combed “John Edwards hair” and no visible physical flaws. “In a strange way, it was political asset to him.”

The political pressures are real in a country has not elected an obese president since William Howard Taft more than a century ago. Former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas lost more than a hundred pounds before seeking the Republican presidential nomination in 2008. Former Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi told reporters interested in whether he would seek the 2012 Republican nomination to watch his waistline for clues.

And last year, as Mr. Christie was considered a presidential and then a vice-presidential possibility, some Republican donors couched their reservations with the observation that it was rare to see people as heavy as he is living to an old age. He was not happy that the operation was made public, and neither, he said, were his wife and four children. According to his staff, he acknowledged the procedure in an interview with The New York Post after the newspaper called to say they were running an article about it.

His office initially said he would answer no more questions about it, but he eventually agreed to take questions at a news conference on Tuesday.

He did so for more than 40 minutes, calling the fascination with his surgery “ridiculous and silly.”

“You know, people in public life have the same concerns that people in private life have,” he said, adding, “Just because I have a public office and I have some measure of notoriety doesn’t mean that my feelings about my family and my concerns about their future are any different than yours or anybody else that’s sitting here.”

As the obesity epidemic in the country has grown, surgical interventions have become more common. Two of the more common surgical options for people seeking to lose weight: banding and its riskier predecessor, gastric bypass surgery.

In choosing to undergo the banding procedure, Mr. Christie joins a list of public figures — including the New York Jets coach Rex Ryan, whom Mr. Christie consulted before the surgery, Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York and the TV weatherman Al Roker — who have turned to surgery to help where diet and exercise have failed.

Mr. Barbour, who is close to Mr. Christie, said political concerns motivated Mr. Barbour to lose 30 pounds during his 2003 campaign for governor. “It is no secret to voters who don’t know a candidate can sometimes be put off by that candidate’s being overweight,” he said.

Mr. Christie has often spoke of his struggles to lose weight, which he said started to become an issue in his 20s, when he stopped playing organized sports.

His sense of urgency about losing weight had increased since he turned 50, he said.

Even those close to him who noticed his recent weight loss presumed that it was another down in what has been a yo-yo cycle. The governor has never revealed his exact weight, but it has been reported at being from 300 to 350 pounds. In July 2011, he was hospitalized briefly after having an asthma attack.

In February, about a week before the surgery, Mr. Christie made light of the issue by munching on a doughnut in an appearance on the “Late Show With David Letterman.”

But around the same time he also got into an angry back and forth with a former surgeon general who expressed concerns about his weight potentially causing him to die in office, telling her to “shut up.”

Source: NYTimes.com

By KATE ZERNIKE and MARC SANTORA; Randy Leonard contributed reporting.
Published: May 8, 2013