WEEHAWKEN, N.J. — Americans love to build up people in the public eye and then watch those same people stumble and fall. Plenty of public figures know this. Just ask John Edwards or Gary Hart or Sarah Palin or Dan Quayle. The height of the pedestal and the time on it for each person may vary, but the laws of physics generally apply: What
goes up must come down.
In some cases, say Richard Nixon or Bill Clinton, the person may be able to bounce back to a certain degree. In others, the overwhelming image we are left with is Rielle or Monkey Business or seeing Russia from Alaska or potato (no E).
One of those still enjoying his place on the pedestal is Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey. At a time when Americans were craving political leaders who spoke plainly, without hyperbole and without too much of a media-consultant makeover, Christie took office in 2010 and tackled things like teacher tenure and a costly tunnel from New Jersey to Manhattan.
He has been cheered at town hall meetings, where he has bluntly told protesters to be quiet or leave.
Even though he has said publicly that he does not see himself as a No. 2, Christie has been mentioned repeatedly as a possible running mate for the Republican presidential candidate, Mitt Romney.
So why in the last 10 days has Christie come under scrutiny by the news media for sharp retorts to reporters and others? (He called a reporter an idiot for asking a question that was off the topic of a news conference about water outages. He shouted at a passer-by on the boardwalk who made a remark about his policies on teachers.) Could it be that we have tired of the very thing we were looking for?
Christie is simply being himself. When he was U.S. attorney for the District of New Jersey, his confrontational style contributed to his success. In court, you want a lawyer who will not back away from a
challenge, right? But none of us wants to be a courtroom all the time.
I can’t help wondering if Christie’s trajectory in public ardor might be similar to that of the abrasive TV talk show host Morton Downey Jr., whose show gained and lost popularity in the late 1980s.
Broadcasting from Secaucus, N.J., the right-wing Downey let it rip, telling guests and others to “Zip it!” when he didn’t like what they said. Downey’s popularity soared because his style was so different from that of other talk show hosts. He was a novelty. But after a while, viewers tired of him and his show was canceled in 1989.
I’m not suggesting that Christie’s politics or values have anything in common with Downey’s. I am saying that Americans can be fickle. We say: “Give us the real story. Tell it to us straight.” But when we get what we ask for, we’re not so sure that we really wanted it after all.
Carla Baranauckas is a freelance editor and writer who has worked at the New York Times, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Grand Forks (N.D.) Herald, the Edwardsville (Ill.) Intelligencer, the Texarkana Gazette, the Pampa (Texas) News and the Minneapolis Tribune. Follow her on Twitter at @cabara.