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Gawande Vs. Kinsley: Fat Fight Between Public Intellectuals

In the online fight that has just erupted over whether New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is too fat to run for president, my money is on our local doctor/public intellectual, surgeon and writer Atul Gawande. In fact, I'd even say that his opponent, liberal pundit Michael Kinsley of former Slate and New Republic fame, has tarnished himself in my eyes on this one.

Michael posted this column, titled "Requiem for a Governer Before He's Even In The Ring," yesterday on Bloomberg Views, and it has received wide play. It begins:

Look, I’m sorry, but New Jersey Governor Chris Christie cannot be president: He is just too fat. Maybe, if he runs for president and we get to know him, we will overlook this awkward issue because we are so impressed with the way he stands up to teachers’ unions. But we shouldn’t overlook it — unless he goes on a diet and shows he can stick to it.

I would have been happily unaware of it except that this morning, my Twitter feed carried these tweets by Atul Gawande:

The usually wise @michaelkinsley is badly wrong to argue Chris Christie's weight disqualifies him from Presidency

Why @michaelkinsley is wrong: 1. Moderating behaviors (eg eating) is FAR harder than ceasing bad ones (eg heroin), which is plenty hard.

Why @michaelkinsley is wrong: 2. There is no evidence skinny presidents are better or worse than fat ones. (Or maybe they undereat?)

Why @michaelkinsley is wrong: 3. Obesity may be our most difficult epidemic, as we're genetically programmed for a starvation environment.

Why @michaelkinsley is wrong: 4. Self-discipline does affect weight, but being non-obese isn't evidence one's self-discipline is stronger.

I can only add that thank goodness Atul Gawande is not like many doctors:

?cm_mmc=Twitter-_-Prevention-_-health-_-docmakingyoufeelfat">Prevention Magazine reports that "More than 1/3 of doctors regarded obese individuals as 'weak willed,' 'sloppy,' & 'lazy.'" Maybe the best thing about a Chris Christie run would be that, with voices the caliber of Atul Gawande's involved, more people might end up better informed about the complexity of obesity.

Readers, comments welcome, but not nasty ones. I was appalled by Michael Kinsley's column, but even more appalled by the ad hominem attacks in the comments, targeting even his Parkinson's Disease.

p.s. The Washington Post's Ezra Klein weighs in beautifully here, including:

There’s something about hearing a slim person say “eat a salad and take a walk” that takes good advice and makes it sound like condescension. Losing massive amounts of weight is a lot harder than a walk and a salad. It’s more like an ultramarathon and a hunger strike. And keeping it off, for many people, is borderline impossible.

Obesity truly is a national health problem. But to address it correctly, we’re going to have to get past the outdated belief that it’s all about discipline or the assumption that the obese are not capable of carrying out demanding jobs. Christie’s weight might actually help us do that. If so, then perhaps the governor’s girth, far from disqualifying from the presidency, is a reason to support his candidacy.

This program aired on September 30, 2011. The audio for this program is not available.

Carey Goldberg Twitter Editor, CommonHealth
Carey Goldberg is the editor of WBUR's CommonHealth blog.

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