Skeletal Jimmy Madison

The Body Mass Index of presidents is the subject of a chart in Sunday's New York Times. (Unfortunately, only the accompanying article is available online.) The article points out that BMI is meaningless by itself. Our 6-foot 194-pound president, who regularly runs 6:30 miles at the age of 58, has a BMI of 26.3 - putting him in the 65% of Americans deemed overweight by the National Institutes of Health. More interesting to me was the historical chart, which ranks presidents in order of their BMIs. Lowest is Madison at 5 foot 4 and 99 pounds, with a BMI of 17 - emaciated even by the standards of Kenyan distance runners. Teddy Roosevelt would have been considered obese (30.2) by today's standards, and Taft - who got stuck in the White House bathub - was morbidly obese (42.3).

Of course, the use 0f BMI-based cutoffs assumes some universal ideal, independent of time, race, gender. With presidents we don't have to worry about the gender or race parts - all are men and almost all English, Scotch or Scotch-Irish.

But time is another story. Don Troiani, the famous Civil War artist, says he seeks out models with a lean and hungry look. Very few people were overweight in those days (something the casting director of Cold Mountain apparently didn't know). If you look at the earlier presidents, they were pretty thin. And surprisingly long-lived despite the medical shortcomings of the age, if you leave out alcoholism (Pierce), cholera (Polk), and weight problems (Taft and Arthur).