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Weighing In

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

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"Kick 'em while they're up," is a good rule of journalism, blogging included.

I'm not sure if interim mayor Myron Lowery is up or down, but I figured writing about his weight would draw fire after I posted a story on the Flyer's website last week.

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

Notwithstanding the popularity of The Biggest Loser, a shelf full of best-selling self-help books, and hours of infomercials, some people think writing about weight and real people is off limits, although it's fine to write about piety, adultery, prayer breakfasts/fund-raisers, and "family values."

Some think it should only be done in reference to celebrities, athletes, bulimic teenagers, anorexic actresses, Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton, or Rush Limbaugh. Some prefer to gossip about it anonymously or make winking comments using euphemisms. Or, let someone else do it.

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

"Too much," he said, when I asked how much he weighed. Asked if his weight is going up or down, Lowery said, "I'm remaining the same, but I've got to go down."

"I've got to deal with that issue," he said. "My doctor says I need to do something about it. That should be my number-one priority. If I'm not around, I can't work for the citizens."

Lowery said he used to play tennis every day 25 years ago but has not had an exercise regimen for several years. He acknowledges a weakness for the breakfast and luncheon buffets that are frequent fare for busy politicians.

"My doctor says better eating habits and more exercise are what I've got to do," he said.

There is never a good time to be fat. It's bad for your heart, puts extra strain on your joints, and lots of other bad things. And that's just the personal stuff.

Fat is all right if you're a famous television talk-show hostess who makes an issue and a cottage industry of her weight or a famous radio talk-show host whose bulk adds impact to his right-wing bluster, or a local television watchdog.

Fat is not all right if you're in politics at a station higher than councilman or commissioner. In a recession, we must trim the fat. We must cut the fat in budgets. We must eliminate pork. We must be lean and mean. If you say those things in front of a camera, it's hard for voters not to draw certain conclusions about your personal proclivities.

If Lowery wants to pick up votes in the next 70 days, he needs to drop some pounds. 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.

Voters also 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 a majority. And I wouldn't be surprised if Lowery, like former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, made his weight battle part of his campaign. It would probably win 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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