Mike Berman’s Washington Watch

May 31, 2007 3:06 PM

Presidential Height, Weight and BMI

On January 31st, your editor appeared on the Paula Zahn show in a segment that addressed the question of whether a fat person could be elected President of the United States.

I took the position that a really fat person could not be elected, given the general public attitude toward fat people. However, that was not always the case.

There were two pretty fat Presidents, Grover Cleveland, who was first elected in 1884, and William Taft, who was elected in 1908.

Both men were subject to a variety of unkind editorial comments.

When Cleveland arrived in Washington he was described as a “huge, bejowled man, a walrus in wingtips, resembling Boss Tweed carrying 280 pounds on a small, beleaguered frame.” “Porcine” is another word that was used when describing him, while his suits were said to be “like Tarpaulins” and straining at the buttons. Toward the end of his second term he was called “The Fat Knight.”

William Taft, who was likely our heaviest President, was pictured in one cartoon as setting foot in Cuba and sinking one side of the island; in another he was characterized as a kewpie doll. Nathan Miller, in his book America's Ten Worst Presidents, refers to Taft as weighing somewhere between 300 and 350 pounds. Whether or not that fact had anything to do with how well he did or didn't do as President is a matter of conjecture.

WW decided to see how our Presidents have done when it comes to their size and weight. After all, we expect them to lead us in a variety of ways, why not when it comes to weight? WW was able to locate published information for only 23 of the 44 Presidents.

To make a "reasonable" comparison among Presidents, WW used the Body Mass Index (BMI), a standard that takes into account height and weight. The current BMI standard has been adopted by an expert panel appointed by the National Institutes of Health as the new standard for predicting the risks associated with overweight.

<18.5 underweight and potentially unhealthy
18.5 - 24.9 healthy weight
25.0 - 26.9 omewhat overweight, avoid gaining weight
27.0 - 29.9 overweight, elevated risk of health problems
30.0 - 34.9 Class 1 obesity, high health risk
35.0 - 39.9 Class 2 obesity, very high health risk
40.0+ Class 3 obesity, extremely high health risk

The smallest President was James Madison, who was reported to stand about 5'4" in height and weighed in at 100 pounds (BMI 17.8). The "heavy weight" was William Taft, who entered office at 6'0" and 330 pounds (BMI 44.65).

As you can see from the list that follows, most Presidents ( whose data WW could locate) had BMIs that were within or close to the so-called "healthy" weight - 20 - class (a BMI of less than 25). (By the way, all but two of them would have been in that class before the standard was changed in 1998. But that is another story.)

President Height Weight BMI Miscellaneous
Washington 6'2" 175 22.50
J. Adams 5'7" "corpulent"
Madison 5'4" about 100 17.8 least tall
Jackson 6'1" 140 18.50
Taylor 5'8" 170 25.88
Lincoln 6'4" 180 21.93 tallest
Hayes 5'8 1/2" 170 25.50
Cleveland 5'11" 260 36.31
Taft 6'0" 316 42.91
330 44.85 (entering office)
Wilson 5'11" 170 23.74
Hoover 5'11" 187 26.11
F.D. Roosevelt 6'2" 188 24.16
Truman 5'9" 167 24.69
Eisenhower 5'10 1/2" 171 24.22
Kennedy 6'0" 173 23.49
Johnson 6'3" 200 25.03
Nixon 5'11 1/2" 175 24.10
Ford 6'0" 195 26.48
Carter 5'9 1/2" 160 23.31
Reagan 6'1" 185 24.43
Bush 6'2" 191 24.55
Clinton 6'2" 216 27.79 (entering office)
6'2" 196 25.22 (10/98)
Bush (2nd) 6'0" 196 26.58 (8/06)

The current President Bush's classification on the BMI scale provides an important example of why all general population standards should be used as guidelines, but not definitive markers. The President is, in fact, in excellent physical condition, even though he gained 5 pounds during the last year.

In the interest of full disclosure, I had a BMI of 47.63 at my highest, and even today it is 36. If you want to find your own BMI, there are several websites that will do the calculation for you. www.NHLbisupport.com/bmi is one.

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