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When New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie revealed his gastric band surgery this week, pundits immediately began speculating: Would the weight loss procedure affect Christie's presumed 2016 presidential run?
Health issues aside, Christie's weight has been seen an a liability in the political arena. "The simple truth is that no one of Christie's size in modern times has gone on to win a presidential nomination, let alone the White House," writes political editor Paul Steinhauser on CNN's Political Ticker blog.
Christie is a tough guy -- he likes to pick fights on the Left and the Right, usually at the same time. But in the era of mass media and the carefully calibrated public image, is obesity a presidential deal breaker? Will undergoing weight loss surgery make Christie a target for late-night monologues and Twitter jokes? If history is any indication, and it frequently is, there are some things you can't do if you want to become president.
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During the 2012 presidential race, GOP candidate Mitt Romney told a group of supporters that 47 percent of U.S. voters don't pay taxes, mooch off the federal government, and will unconditionally support President Obama for re-election. "And so my job is not to worry about those people," Romney said in the video, secretly taped at a campaign fundraising event. "I'll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives."
Word leaked to U.S. voters and Romney never recovered from the incident. Stand-up comics have a rule for this sort of thing: When you're trying to win over a room, don't insult half the crowd.
In 1988, Democratic candidate Michael Dukakis took part in one of political history's most ill-conceived publicity stunts. In an effort to toughen up his image, the diminutive Dukakis posed riding in an M-1 Abrams tank, but unfortunately ended up looking like a kid playing Army guys. Republicans immediately used the footage in attack ads, and the American public quickly concluded that Dukakis had an altitude problem.
Rallying supporters after the Iowa caucuses in 2004, Democratic candidate Howard Dean got a little overexcited and let out a most remarkable -- hmm, "exhortation" is probably the polite term. Part psychotic rebel yell, part tween girl squeal, the infamous "Dean Scream" was deemed entirely unpresidential. The incident suggests that even the slightest gaffes are amplified (literally) in the realm of presidential politics.
Barry Goldwater's fiery acceptance speech at the 1964 Republican Convention may have galvanized supporters, but it scared the living daylights out of the nation's moderate and swing voters: "I would remind you," the candidate thundered, "that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice!" Goldwater's hard-case attitude earned him a massive defeat at the polls. Oh, he also suggested sawing off the Eastern Seaboard and letting it float out to sea. Seriously.
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Rumors of extramarital affairs dogged Democratic candidate Gary Hart in the run-up to the 1988 election. So Hart famously issued a dare to the media: "Follow me around," Hart told reporters. "If anybody wants to put a tail on me, go ahead. They'll be very bored." They weren't: Hart's affair with 29-year-old model Donna Rice was exposed and the candidate dropped out of the race a week later. The infamous photo of Rice, sitting on Hart's lap aboard the yacht Monkey Business, became a campaign gaffe classic.
Before the 2008 election, Democratic hopeful John Edwards vehemently denied reports in The National Enquirer that he engaged in an affair with campaign film producer Rielle Hunter. When mainstream media outlets began digging around, Edwards admitted the affair, but denied fathering Hunter's child. That only attracted more scrutiny and by the time Edwards acknowledged paternity, his political career was effectively demolished. He would later be charged with felony crimes for allegedly using campaign funds to cover up the affair.
Whether Al Gore actually lost the 2000 presidential election is a question that, in certain circles, is still open to debate. But he didn't help his cause during the primaries when he claimed to have invented the Internet. To be clear, what Gore actually said, while ticking off a list of part accomplishments: "During my service in the United States Congress, I took the initiative in creating the Internet. I took the initiative in moving forward a whole range of initiatives that have proven to be important to our country's economic growth." The opposition quickly pounced and proved once again the devastating offensive power of the out-of-context sound byte.
In 1967, Michigan governor George Romney was an early favorite for the GOP nomination. Until he gave a TV interview in which he claimed his earlier support for the Vietnam War was a result of brainwashing. “When I came back from Vietnam I just had the greatest brainwashing that anyone can get,” he said. “Not only by the generals, but also by the diplomatic corps over there, and they do a very thorough job.” Turns out the American public was wary of a washed brain in the nation's commander-in-chief. (Perhaps not coincidentally, "The Manchurian Candidate" had been released just a few years earlier.)
In 2004, the political strategy team behind incumbent President Bush targeted challenger John Kerry, accusing him of flip-flopping on the issues for political expediency. They zeroed in on Kerry's infamous statement on an important funding bill: "I actually did vote for the $87 billion, before I voted against it.” Video of Kerry windsurfing off the coast of Nantucket provided the key visual metaphor, as he tacked this way and that, depending on the (political?) winds. If a picture is worth a thousand words, a video is worth a thousand insinuating talking points.
In 1960, the televised Kennedy-Nixon debates underlined the importance of public image in presidential politics -- and the power of the TV set. In the first debate, the naturally telegenic Kennedy -- looking tan and healthy -- stared directly into the camera as he fielded questions. Meanwhile, a pallid Nixon -- coming off the flu and sporting a 5 o'clock shadow that shaded more toward 7:30 -- glanced nervously off-camera, unsure where to direct his eyes. Worse, Nixon started to sweat profusely under the hot studio lights, finally mopping his face with a handkerchief. Kennedy won the popular vote 49.7 percent to 49.5 percent, and later polls revealed that more than half of all voters had been influenced by the debates, with 6 percent saying that the debates alone had decided their choice.