Chris Bully Boy Christie: Obesity and Empathy and the New Jersey Govenor

by nikki meredith

Chris Christie snarlingWhen I was in high school, my best friend and I were walking across the parking lot at a southern California beach where my family camped every summer. Three boys our age were walking towards us. My friend and one of the boys, a hefty guy…okay, a fat guy, got into one of those do-si-do routines: each time she stepped to the left, he stepped to his right; each time he stepped to his left, she stepped to her right – neither one could move forward. It’s the kind of situation where someone with good humor, if not much wit, says, “Shall we dance?”  This guy, however, had neither good humor nor wit. He planted his feet in a wide stance, folded his arms, and snarled, “I’m not going to move.”

My friend put her hands on her hips and examined him from head to girth to foot. “You couldn’t move,” she said, “even if you wanted to.”

I was gobsmacked.  On the one hand, I’d been taught by my parents never, ever, to ridicule or even comment on a person’s physical traits.  On the other, I wanted to yell a 1960’s equivalent of you go girl. The guy was a bully and clearly the back-up of his snickering buddies bolstered his bullishness.

I think of that incident and my dual reaction almost every time I see Chris Christie on television and I’ve been seeing him a lot lately because of an incident involving the George Washington bridge where he is alleged to have thrown his weight around with, if not dire consequences, certainly inconvenient ones for a considerable number of people. I’ll get to that in a minute but first let’s review some highlights of the Gov’s bullying tendencies:

At a press conference where reporters were told the governor would only answer questions about a water treatment plant, one reporter asked an unrelated question involving the state legislature. “Did I say on topic?” Christie growled. “Are you stupid? On topic, on topic. ” As the reporter tried to follow up, Christie ended the press conference, “Thank you all very much, and I’m sorry for the idiot over there.”

Idiot is a favorite of Christie’s: At a town meeting a Rutgers University law student and former Navy Seal had the impudence to challenge the wisdom of an impending merger of Rutgers with Rowan College. When the student persisted in arguing his case, the governor told him that if he conducted himself the same way in a courtroom after he graduated from law school, ‘Your rear end’s going to be thrown in jail, idiot.” (italics are mine)Chris Christie yelling at teacher

Christie has consistently bashed teacher’s unions and at a Rutgers football rally a kindergarten teacher approached him to ask: “Why do you portray New Jersey Public Schools as ‘failure factories?'” Christie responded that he was sick of “you people” but the photo of Christie face is more telling  than his words. (Even more arresting is the undecipherable smile on wife Mary Pat’s face as she witnessed his take down of the teacher.)

Christie denies bullying anyone. He’s says he’s simply direct and it’s something he’s done his whole life. “It’s the way my mother raised me,” Christie said  during the first debate of his gubernatorial re-election campaign. “I am who I am. And I’m not going to change.” He claims the voters love it because they know he speaks the truth. It’s never, however , truth to power, it’s “truth” to someone he knows the crowd will jeer while cheering him on.  Like the beefy kid at the beach who taunted my friend while his buddies snickered their support.

Now back to the bridge. On September 9th somebody ordered lanes closed on the George Washington Bridge, the busiest bridge in the world, resulting in a massive traffic jam. The town of Fort Lee was hit the hardest. The allegation is that Christie or one of his deputies closed the lanes to punish the Democratic mayor of Fort Lee for not endorsing Christie’s re-election. Christie had wanted a bipartisan landslide.  The Gov denies any involvement but in the style of former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales acknowledges that “mistakes were made” and two of his appointees have resigned over the incident. [Update: It’s since been revealed that his closest staff members were involved.]

Some of Christie’s defenders say his problem isn’t bullying, his problem is that he’s quick to anger but if he had anything to do with the lane closing as retribution, there wouldn’t have been anything particularly quick about it…we’re talking premeditation. (For more examples, click on the New York Times article: “Stories Add Up as Bully Image Trails Christie.”)  It doesn’t matter to me whether he’s an impulsive bully or a calculating one.  A bully is a bully and when I look at his jowly snarling face, I want to say to whomever takes him on, the 2013 version of “You go girl/boy.”Chris Christie with his finger wagging

But then I’ll hear a fat joke aimed at Christie, and I hear them often, and the values my parents taught me come to the fore. Bill Maher cannot mention Christie’s name without making a lame joke, and the jokes are always lame, about the governor’s weight.  (After years of such jokes, Bill Maher had the audacity recently to ask his audience whether the editors at Time Magazine had taken things too far when they put Christie on the cover with the headline: “The elephant in the room.” Yes, Bill, Time went too far and so do you, week after week.) There are plenty of issues for progressive like Maher on which to challenge Christie  – he’s anti-labor union, anti gay marriage, anti choice for women, anti government regulation on a host of critical issues – so why pick on the one thing he may have little control over. (Take a look at the success rate for dieters.)

I have been astonished at how many people I generally respect, people who in most other realms express empathy for the plight of folks who have a tough go of it, feel completely okay about making fun of fat people.  Jon Stewart donned a fat suit for an extended joke about weight gain and, once again, the jokes were lame. But for me the most disappointing is Dan Savage.  I love Dan Savage.  I love the purity of his anger towards right wing homophobes; I love his intelligence, his humor, and his empathy for young gay people. But he can be particularly unkind in his characterization of fat people. He defends his criticism with the assertion that unlike homosexuality, being fat is a choice. Apparently he was fat once and he conquered it through diet and exercise. He acknowledges that he keeps the weight off with obsessive vigilance – not a morsel goes into his mouth without attention to the consequences.  I haven’t had a problem with weight yet but if I ever do, I would rather let it rip and buy a wardrobe of mu mus than be fixated on every crumb that reaches my mouth. But what irritates me the most is that his own struggle with weight has resulted in less empathy for fat people not more.   Before I give the impression that fat bashing is limited to progressives: according to Double Down: Game Change 2012, by journalists Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, when Christie was being considered for the v.p. position on the ticket, Romney campaign’s nickname for him was pufferfish and the authors refer to the Washington Post’s observation that Romney gawked at Christie as if he had never seen a fat person before: “Romney marveled at Christie’s girth, his difficulties in making his way down the narrow aisle of the campaign bus.” The Post observed that when Romney watched a video of Christie without his suit jacket on, he cackled to his aides, ‘Guys! Look at that!’”

The infantile quality of the fat jokes suggest regression and not regression to adolescence, regression to toddlerhood.  They’re in the same category as jokes about poop and butts. There is some evidence that humans have an innate fear of fat people because in primitive cultures fat equates with sickness so perhaps kiddies joke about fat because they aren’t yet socialized as do adults with childish psyches.  The prejudice against fat people is so complicated, however, that I’m hesitant to embrace the innate fear of fat theory but let’s look at the possibilities on the nurture side of the equation. Chris Christie in current size Did Christie become a bully because he was fat?  And when did these men who are so harsh about his weight develop their prejudice?  I started imagining little Billy Maher in grade school being tossed around by the fat boy, Chrissy Christie. (They are, after all, both from New Jersey, though unless Billy flunked some classes, the ages don’t add up so the New Jersey connection might be a stretch.)

When you look at Christie’s face, you can still see that chubby preschooler. So you can imagine the following: the kiddies start calling him fatso. In return he develops a sticks and stones defense. “Who called me fatso?” he says wheeling around his hulk. “Not I,” the trembling gaggle of little ones sing out.   But Chrissy is more than muscle, he’s smart. He starts poking fun at the skinny boys, the little girls, anyone who seems vulnerable. The kids react with fear, loathing and laughter.   Billy Maher and Jonny Stewart (aka Shortie) alternate between keeping their respective heads down and laughing defensively when Christie picks on the other kids.  When Chrissy The Enforcer Christie’s physical dominance and his verbal aggression are wedded, a future politician is born.

The more I thought about this, the more it made sense and the more excited I was. It answered both questions: why he was a bully and why these critics/comedians, his former victims, take such pleasure in humiliating him. (I added little Davie Letterman to the list. Letterman dedicated a whole routine of fat jokes at Christie’s expense.)

But when I went to Google Images to retrieve early photos of the governor I discovered the problem with my theory: Christie wasn’t a fat kid. He wasn’t a fat toddler or a fat elementary school kid or a fat adolescent. And when, at 24, he donned a tux to wed Mary Pat he was a slim, fit groom.  Between his wedding day and now he has gained an enormous amount of weight.Chris Christie as a teen

According to medical charts, at his height, 5’ 11”, Christie should weigh 180 and in his photos as a youth, it looks as though he weighed even less. While Christie has never disclosed his weight, there was speculation a couple of years ago based on photos that he weighed 350. (He has since had lap band surgery and lost some weight but he is still morbidly obese.)  What would cause someone to gain 170 pounds in less than a decade? When Christie has been asked why he got fat, he answers with some version of “I ate too much.” But why did he eat too much?  Why, when he saw the scale inching up (or sliding? galloping?) did he not consult a doctor or a fitness coach? Or did he? I have scanned many articles and profiles of him and not one reporter that I could find addressed the circumstances around his excessive weight gain.Chris Christie wedding

It’s clear that people’s reaction to obesity is as complicated as the reasons for developing it. Fat children are more likely to be bullied; fat children are more likely to bully. It makes sense that if we could eliminate bullying for all children, the world would be a better place but, in the case of obesity, it’s unlikely to happen any time soon. The focus on the obesity epidemic is only making it worse because fat bashing has now gained legitimacy. Medical people as well as comedians can claim they are only looking out for the best interest of fat people. But all the focus does is create more stress and there’s plenty of evidence that stress causes fat people to eat more, not less.

I completely reject the idea that there is a relationship between obesity and character and I am so enraged by the open season on fat people displayed by the comedians that I make a point of casting accepting smiles to overweight people, especially in areas where they might likely encounter hostility, such as airplanes. I confess, however, that this tests my commitment. I am no saint and there’s little enough space to share with undersized people.  On a recent trip to Austin when I found myself leaning into the aisle to avoid canoodling with a very hefty man who was encroaching on a big chunk of my airspace I found myself with some ugly, infantile thoughts of my own. It didn’t take long, however, for me to penetrate the layers of prejudice, sort out the reasonable from the unreasonable and arrive at a wellspring of empathy, empathy the governor is apparently unwilling to extend to people who cross him.