Monday, August 10, 2009

Healthy Debate or Cheap Shot?

Posted By on Mon, Aug 10, 2009 at 10:57 AM

Should it be off limits to write about a public figure’s weight battle?

“Kick ‘em while they’re up,” is a good rule of journalism, blogging included.

I’m not sure if Myron Lowery is up or down, but I figured writing about his weight would draw fire.

On the one hand, he’s up because he is the new mayor, if only the longest-serving interim mayor in recent history. On the other hand, he’s had a rough first week, and in the opinion of some friends and foes, didn’t need what they saw as piling on.

Notwithstanding the popularity of “The Biggest Loser,” a shelf full of bestselling self-help books, and hours of infomercials, some people think writing about weight and public officials is off limits, although it’s fine to write about their piety, adultery, prayer breakfasts/fundraisers, and “family values.” One reader professed to be shocked, leaving me shocked that anyone in the blogosphere could be shocked about anything.

Some think weight is fair game only in reference to celebrities, athletes on SportsCenter, bulimic teenagers, anorexic actresses, Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton, or Rush Limbaugh. Some prefer to gossip about it anonymously or make winking comments using euphemisms. Stout. Portly. Jowly. Alarmingly thin. Or let someone else do it.

Another approach is to ask the person in a face-to-face interview and let them respond.

Lowery answered my questions calmly and directly. He did not protest about the timing or the substance, either during or after the interview. He knows politics is a contact sport. A former reporter, he also knows how brutal television can be when it comes to appearance and on-camera talent. He can take a punch and hit back.

Special elections and pre-election debates are not called beauty contests for nothing. They are not resume contests, comparative SAT tests, or College Bowl. Fair or not, appearance is a factor, and fat is a perfectly good word. The basics are always revealing about would-be political leaders. What do they look like, how do they present themselves, where do their children (if any) attend school, do they live inside Memphis or outside Memphis, and how do they make a living? Position papers or canned answers to candidate surveys are far less telling.

Voters like pluck, underdogs, reformed sinners, and personal struggles they can relate to. I have no idea how many Memphians are struggling with their weight, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it's several thousands. And I wouldn’t be surprised if Lowery made his self-described weight battle part of his campaign and it won him some admiration and some votes.

And for what it’s worth, there is an exercise room in the basement of City Hall.

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