US News & World Report

By Nicole Hemmer

On Saturday, The New York Times ran a front-page story detailing the dietary habits of Jeb Bush, whose pre-campaign Paleo diet has left him 30 pounds lighter and noticeably grumpier. The story represented a trend in campaign reporting, where candidates’ food choices receive the same comprehensive coverage as their stump speeches. (For example, the article noted that Bush had “sautéed branzino with clams and mussels” for lunch one day, skipped the pancakes at a stop in Colorado Springs and left a “plump slice of blueberry pie” half-eaten at an appearance in New Hampshire.)

While such stories feed our seemingly endless appetite for campaign trail news, they tell us little about who would make a better president. More troublingly, because our culture equates svelteness with virtuous self-control, campaign trail weight-watching leaves us less prepared to make informed choices at the polls.

It wasn’t always this way. Presidents Grover Cleveland, Teddy Roosevelt and William Taft were men of substantial girth. Taft was teased but seldom seemed to mind, except for those moments when he fretted, “No real gentleman weighs more than 300 pounds” (a standard Taft failed to meet more often than not). But in the late 19th and early 20th century, men’s weight was seldom an issue, as a hefty frame connoted gravitas and toughness.

By the time Bill Clinton ran for president in 1992, attitudes had changed. Reporters carefully cataloged every fast-food stop and soda refill. When candidate Clinton boasted that he had dropped 12 pounds, the Los Angeles Times praised his “relative restraint” when he popped into Wendy’s to order a grilled chicken sandwich, chili and a Diet Coke. Journalists and comedians constantly quipped about his weight once he was in office. The London Observer labeled him “the great white whale of 1993,” while David Letterman preferred the nickname “Tubby.” When, by 1997, the president had dropped about 25 pounds, that, too, got lots of press.

So what changed? In part, it’s the changing role of politics. The worlds of media, celebrity and politics have grown increasingly intertwined. As historian Kathryn Cramer Brownell shows in her new book Showbiz Politics, this intertwining has been going on for some time. What’s new is the way our obsession with celebrities’ diets and weight fluctuations has seeped into politics: before-and-after shots of Chris Christie, detailed accounts of President Barack Obama’s fitness regimen, hand-wringing over the 2008 campaign trail’s effect on Mike Huckabee’s weight loss efforts.

Candidates drive the coverage as much as journalists do. They dig into fair foods and diner grub with gusto, making sure the cameras catch every bite. It’s an exercise in populist bonding. In a country where referencing arugula counts as a gaffe, candidates have to consume campaign trail calorie bombs lest they seem too snobbish and aloof. And it’s easier to get populist cred by shotgunning a funnel cake at the Iowa State Fair than by denouncing corporate welfare or cutting ties with boardroom billionaires.

Accounts of their weight struggles serve candidates’ interests, too. Primary system reforms in the 1970s shifted control from the parties to the voters, making the personalities of the candidates much more important. This ushered in an age of confessional politics meant to make candidates more relatable. So Jimmy Carter sat down with Playboy in 1976 to admit he had “looked on a lot of women with lust,” and George W. Bush recounted his struggles with alcohol addiction.

Political diet talk works the same way. Candidates come clean about their struggles with food as a gesture of empathy to the millions of Americans who feel the same. Huckabee has referred to himself as a “recovering food addict.” He’s even written a self-help book on shedding the pounds, “Quit Digging Your Grave with a Knife and Fork.” Christie, before getting gastric-band surgery in 2013, described the crushing disappointment of not being able to lose weight. “For somebody like me who's had so much success in my life, and really been successful at everything I’ve tried, to not be able to be successful at this is incredibly discouraging.”

These campaign confessionals almost always end the same way: struggle followed by triumph. Huckabee lost 110 pounds, Christie nearly 100, Jeb Bush about 30. The narrative tempts us to believe that we’re learning something not just about the candidates’ physical fitness, but about their fitness for office.

Yet waistline watchdogging doesn’t tell us anything. Calorie counting doesn’t correlate with character, and leanness isn’t a proxy for leadership. The last two presidents have been trim and athletic, and chances are you think at least one of them was terrible at his job. So let’s wish Bush well with his Paleo diet and hope that his grumpiness ebbs by the time he finally declares his candidacy. But let’s not mistake information on his meal plans as any sort of useful knowledge.

This article was originally published in the US News & World Report