Gov. CHRIS CHRISTIE

I caught a few minutes of Ann Coulter’s appearance on one of the Sunday talk shows this week, and found that by not tuning in earlier I had missed hearing her reasons for promoting Chris Christie as a Republican presidential candidate.
Apparently, it wasn’t a half-hearted endorsement; I heard her refer to the governor as “my first love.”
Coulter is not the first person to make this case. Christie is a controversial figure in terms of his public policy and his style, but he seems to be developing a following around the country.

Still this kind of talk has an unfamiliar ring to us in New Jersey because, except for Bill Bradley’s failed attempt to win the Democratic nomination in 2000, making presidents has not been our thing in recent decades.

Even the two we contributed in the distant past had imperfect credentials. Woodrow Wilson wasn’t born in New Jersey, and Grover Cleveland – who was born here and is buried here – spent most of his life someplace else.

GROVER CLEVELAND

Christie hasn’t lent much credibility to the idea that he would be a willing candidate, but if he should run, one thing that has come up already and surely would get a lot of attention in the news coverage – and late-night commentaries – would be his girth.
Christie himself has often acknowledged that his weight is a result of his eating habits and that it is unhealthy.
In the world we live in, it is also a potential liability from the aesthetic point of view.

There already have been stories speculating as to whether a man of Christie’s size can be elected president – kind of a diss on the intelligence of the body politic.

In fact, that question has already been answered twice by the elections of William Howard Taft and Grover Cleveland.

Taft, the largest president so far, was six feet tall and weighed more than 330 pounds when he was elected president in 1908. After Taft had left the presidency, he lost about 80 pounds, which lowered his blood pressure and improved his ability to sleep.

WILLIAM HOWARD TAFT

Cleveland – whose weight isn’t mentioned as frequently as Taft’s – was five-feet-eleven and weighed between 235 and 280 pounds. His weight is noticeable in photographs from his presidential years, but it apparently didn’t trouble the citizens who gave him the majority of the popular vote three times in a row – the only president besides Franklin Roosevelt to achieve that. (In 1888, Benjamin Harrison won the majority of the electoral votes.)
The criticism directed at political candidates in the 19th and early 20th centuries could be as cruel, in its own way, as the attacks that are leveled today. Cartoonists gleefully exploited the proportions of both Cleveland and Taft, and no one’s physical appearance attracted more public ridicule than that of Abraham Lincoln.

But the pervasive and relentless nature of media in our age add a lot of destructive power to negative messages.

Some voters might be legitimately concerned about the life-threatening nature of Christie’s weight, but the web of electronic communications has given people the idea that they can – and should – say virtually anything that comes into their heads. The comments posted on web sites suggest that many writers think it’s a virtue to be as coarse and demeaning as they can.

I noticed, for instance, that folks who frequent a Facebook page for graduates of my high school alma mater, say some pretty awful things about former teachers and classmates – undaunted by the fact that most of their targets are still living and could easily read these messages.

For his own well-being – particularly if he takes on the rigors of a presidential campaign and a term or two in the White House – Christie ought to do something about his weight.

Besides prolonging his life, it would spare him and his family the meanness that has become the lingua franca of smart alecs in the digital age.

Woodrow Wilson with his predecessor, William Howard Taft, shortly before Wilson was inaugurated as the 28th president. In 1921, the 29th president, Warren G. Harding, appointed a slimmer Taft chief justice of the United States. Taft is the only person to have held both offices.

SARAH PALIN

I just read the Vanity Fair stories about Sarah Palin. I didn’t read them for the content, because that has been pretty much laid out in media reports; I was interested as a journalist in the issue of unnamed sources.

Some of what Michael Gross reports in those stories is based on documentation, most notably the accounts of the large amounts of money spent on clothing for Gov. Palin and her family during the 2008 election campaign. Much of this has been reported before — even during the campaign — and Gross reinforces the idea that the spending was excessive. Some might argue that political candidates should present themselves as they normally appear, but that’s not the kind of culture we live in. I imagine the campaigns also spent money on clothing for the McCains and the Obamas and the Bidens, but Gross doesn’t present that kind of information or any other point of comparison.

TODD PALIN

What troubles me, however, is that Gross’s story makes the case that Gov. Palin has become a ruthless, nasty, self-absorbed person; that she has a violent temper which she has directed at, among other people, her husband, Todd; and that the images of her as a hunter and as a pious person have been fabricated. In order to support his  portrait of Palin as a kind of angel of darkness, Gross explains that he could not name most of the primary sources for his stories because they were afraid of reprisals. The reader, of course, has no idea what might motivate the unnamed staff member or bartender to pillory Gov. Palin.

SARAH PALIN

And, in fact, in Gross’s long article there is only one named source to support the image of Gov. Palin the writer creates. That source is Colleen Cottle, who was a member of the City Council when Sarah Palin was mayor of Wasilla, Alaska. Cottle, who told Gross she and her husband “will pay a price” for speaking openly about Gov. Palin, said it was difficult to work with a mayor who had a short attention span, didn’t understand mathematics or accounting well enough to discuss city budgets,  and spent only four hours a day at the job — mild comments compared to some of the other characterizations in Gross’s article.

Sarah Palin campaigining for the vice presidency in 2008.

I am not an apologist for Sarah Palin, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the stories Gross reports are true. In any case, Gov. Palin has made herself a public figure, and she has to take her lumps. What concerns me is that the use of unnamed sources — and only one named source — to paint a very ugly picture of this woman is out of whack, if we are supposed to accept Gross’s story as journalism. When I worked for the Gannett Co., the policy was that unnamed sources could be used only when necessary, and the necessity had to do with the importance of the information. Naturally, the policy also required that the source have first-hand knowledge of the subject matter, and that the top editor of the publication knew the identity of the source. The policy also required that the source be identified in the story as fully as possible and that the reason for withholding the name of the source was explained to readers. We might have applied that policy, for example, to report the kind of weapon used in a homicide when the source of the information was a police chief who did not want to run afoul of an overbearing county prosecutor.

ALLEN NEUHARTH

Gross points out, of course, that neither Gov. Palin nor anyone on her behalf would agree to be interviewed for his story, and Gov. Palin has since clubbed the article as “yellow journalism,” using the bat that Gross put in her hands — unattributed claims. There is a great deal written about this subject, including the fact that the unnamed source has become the sine qua non of reporting in Washington. “Nobody has a name in Washington,” leading journalist Joann Byrd told the American Journalism Review in 1994.

Research has repeatedly shown, however, that consumers of news are skeptical of unnamed sources and are likely to assume that an unnamed source does not exist. Allen Neuharth, founder of USA Today and former chairman of the Freedom Forum free-press foundation had this to say on the topic in the same article in the American Journalism Review:

“There’s not a place for anonymous sources. I think there are a few major historical developments that happened in journalism – the Pentagon Papers, maybe Watergate – where anonymous sources had a more positive influence than a negative impact. But on balance, the negative impact is so great that we can’t overcome the lack of trust until or unless we ban them.”