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.

ANN COULTER

So Ann Coulter spoke at the University of Calgary last night, and Canada is still intact. There is no way to know whether Coulter’s remarks at the University of Ottawa – which she did not deliver because she was, in effect, driven away by a crowd of protesters – would have differed from the remarks she gave at Calgary, where she was treated almost politely.

The episode at Ottawa was interesting in its own way because the protesters presumably were to the left of Coulter on the political spectrum but were behaving a lot like people in the States have behaved recently — people who, one would assume, are in Coulter’s vicinity on the philosophical scale. So folks of all stripes are capable of intolerance.

This incident and others like it also expose the fact that many of us are almost infantile in our understanding of the very institutions we pretend to uphold.

NOAM CHOMSKY

In particular, people like those who hounded Coulter at Ottawa don’t grasp, or don’t want to accept, the radical principle that by whatever criterion we mitigate the rights of one person, we put our own rights in jeopardy. Such people also don’t grasp that they have to be willing to be offended if they want to live in a free society. It’s what the ancients called “a hard saying,” and far more of us subscribe to it rhetorically than like it when it’s put into practice.  “If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all,” as Noam Chomsky put it.

There’s a guy who occasionally sets up shop outside the post office down the street to spread his vitriol about Barack Obama — which I don’t agree with, and Nancy Pelosi — which is negotiable. I hear neighbors complaining about that guy, but to me he is just a part of the big portrait of America. I don’t like Ann Coulter, but I feel much more secure in my own life to the extent that she is allowed to say what’s on her mind.

Joy, joy, joy

June 13, 2009

JOY BEHAR

JOY BEHAR

I don’t know why this took so long, but I’m glad to see that Joy Behar is finally going to have her own TV talk show. It will be on at 9 p.m. weekdays on HLN, the network formerly known as Headline News.

I listened reguarly to Behar’s radio show on WABC in New York. I didn’t always agree with her – particularly on religious issues – but I was drawn in by the combination of wit, intelligence, and common sense and by her willingness to listen to other points of view. In fact, I called in to her show several times, and she always gave me enough time to say what was on my mind.

JOY BEHAR

JOY BEHAR

While she was still doing that radio show, I wrote a long profile of her. I remember the lead: “Joy Behar is a chiacchierone” – that being the Italian term for “chatterbox.” I spent about an hour with her at WABC, and I later talked by phone to the station manager, who told me Behar’s show was doing well and that he had just signed her to a new contract. It wasn’t long after that that she was fired, not a surprising turn of events in radio. She seemed too liberal and too outspoken in general for the management of that station, but she wound up working for the same parent company when she got her position as a co-host of “The View.”

ANN COULTER

ANN COULTER

It isn’t possible to judge Behar’s potential as a TV host based on “The View,” because guests aren’t given enough time on that show and the hosts often talk simultaneously. There was a better example of  her work recently when she substituted for Larry King and interviewed Ann Coulter. When Coulter appeared on “The View” the conversation deteriorated into babble as everyone tried to make her point at the same time in a contentious atmosphere. On the King show, however, Behar and Coulter were able to have a linear conversation in which – though they may be polar opposites in many ways – they showed each other mutual respect and the viewer got a chance to learn something from the dialogue.

At last, something  to look forward to in the bleak landscape of television.