Why you should care
Because these are the literal and metaphorical vices that grease the rails of the U.S. government.
Part of “The Seven Deadly Sins of American Politics,” a special series in which OZY’s Sean Braswell examines the literal and metaphorical vices that grease the rails of American government. Get caught up with an exploration of gluttony, lust, pride, envy, wrath, greed and sloth.
It’s hard to know for sure if William Howard Taft really got stuck in a White House bathtub, but it would not have been all that surprising given the 5-foot-11, 340-pound former president’s penchant for pancakes. Taft’s breakfast regularly included a pound of bacon, a dozen eggs and, yes, a healthy stack of flapjacks. Indeed, if you visit Madame Tussauds in Washington, D.C., you will see wax replicas of former U.S. presidents engaged in all manner of dignified endeavors. The rotund Taft? He’s standing next to a scale.
Yet our fat-shaming of Taft obscures the fact that the distinguished jurist was one of the hardest-working public figures in American history, and the only one to serve as both president and a Supreme Court justice. And were we to mine the true depths of the gluttony endemic to our political system, then the breakfasts enjoyed by our heftiest leaders are but the first course in a bounteous feast of perks, political fundraisers and pork-barrel spending passing through the gullet of American government.
The Political Appetite
In the biblical tradition, the sin of gluttony rests on an excessive consumption of food, and, when it comes to American presidents, it’s not just Taft who indulged in a good meal. Weighing in at 250 pounds, Grover “Uncle Jumbo” Cleveland scaled the greasy pole of Buffalo politics on a diet of beer, sausage and sauerkraut. It was luck that Theodore Roosevelt (220 pounds) led such an active lifestyle, as his eating exploits were legendary. “I have seen him eat a whole chicken and drink four large glasses [of milk] at one meal,” his campaign manager once observed, “and chicken and milk were by no means the only things served.” In more recent times, Bill “Bubba” Clinton’s (230 pounds) notorious love of junk food was grist for comedians, including the classic Saturday Night Live skit in which Phil Hartman (as Clinton) gobbles down the meals of McDonald’s diners as he chews the fat with them.
Gluttony is about not knowing when to stop, and it applies to lots of areas of political life.
John J. Pitney Jr., professor of politics, Claremont McKenna College
True gluttony is rare in politics, says Claremont McKenna College politics professor John J. Pitney Jr., as most politicians tend to watch their waistlines. But many, like Clinton, are gluttons for other things, including attention. “What if you tweet and nobody tweets back?” the former president said to Stephen Colbert in 2013 when asked why he wasn’t on Twitter (he is now, with more than 5.8 million followers). This sort of insecurity can be both a tremendous asset (on the campaign trail) and a liability (ahem, extramarital affairs). “Gluttony is about not knowing when to stop, and it applies to lots of areas of political life,” Pitney says, “from fundraising to the perks of office, and that’s where a lot of politicians get in trouble.”
The Bloated Political Class
Members of Congress have traditionally enjoyed any number of subsidized legislative perks, from gyms and parking to free haircuts and, yes, exclusive dining rooms. But the real intersection of food and politics in Washington takes place in the private dining halls around Capitol Hill. In a recent episode of Last Week Tonight, comedian John Oliver took aim at congressional fundraising, including the massive number of money-hungry parties (more than 2,800 in 2013–14) held at Capitol Hill eateries like Johnny’s Half Shell.
These gatherings, where lobbyists, political insiders and others pay thousands of dollars to rub shoulders with our elected representatives, are a key locus of American democracy. It’s only been in recent years — thanks to the likes of Oliver and the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to government transparency — that the lid has been lifted on the scope and influence of such fundraisers.
The culinary offerings at these kinds of events tend to be high-end, says Josh Stewart, Sunlight’s deputy communications director, but there are a lot of places where you can get a five-star steak for less than $10,000 a plate. The primary purpose of these carefully orchestrated feeding troughs is not gourmet dining. “The food is really about access,” says Stewart. “It’s about getting people in the same room so person A can influence person B.” Of course, for many politicians, the real excess consumption doesn’t kick in until after they’ve left government for the private sector and taken a seat on the other side of the banquet table, from which they can consume hefty fees for consulting, serving on corporate boards and making the rounds of the lecture circuit.
The Media Feeding Frenzy
Politicians and political insiders aren’t the only ones guilty of a good binge. The past half century has been overrun with what University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato calls media “feeding frenzies.” In one of these, Sabato writes in Feeding Frenzy: Attack Journalism & American Politics, “a critical mass of journalists leap to cover the same embarrassing or scandalous subject and pursue it intensely, often excessively and sometimes uncontrollably.” Whenever a politician gets wounded by scandal, the media sharks circle their prey, swallowing incomplete or inaccurate information in the competition to seize the juiciest flanks.
The result, too often, is an unfairly mangled political corpse. Take that time former Vice President Dan Quayle corrected a 12-year-old’s correct spelling of “potato” by asking the kid to add an “e” at the end. Never mind that Quayle was working from an erroneous flash card provided by the boy’s own teacher — in the ensuing frenzy, Quayle was eaten alive as a gluttonous public devoured the story hook, line and sinker. The list goes on, up to and including this year’s all-you-can-eat Donald Trump buffet. Will 2016 finally be the election binge that prompts American politicians, the media and the public to purge the contents of their distended bellies and at last embark on that elusive diet of electoral reform?
While you ponder that, chew on some lighter fare from 1992: