Will Chris Christie throw a temper tantrum?
By Richard Cohen,
Chris Christie must have spent the last week feeling a bit like one of those bodies on a crime show. He was poked and prodded, turned this way and that, examined from head to toe. He was found to be too fat, too aggressive, too undisciplined, too angry and — not insignificantly — too late into the race. Running for president is like intensive psychoanalysis. You find out a lot about yourself.
Right off the bat, Christie was denounced as criminally obese not just by some important columnists — Eugene Robinson and Michael Kinsley (both of them infuriatingly trim, in my estimation) — but, more importantly, on “The View,” the immensely popular syndicated television program presided over by Barbara Walters. It was not Walters, though, who found the Republican governor of New Jersey too oval for the Oval Office, but — most vociferously — Joy Behar and Sherri Shepherd, comedians both. This, though, is no laughing matter.
They raised health issues. They raised willpower issues. They raised self-discipline issues — all of which are real, because, among other things, in a presidential campaign anything is an issue. Recall that just recently Barack Obama’s religion and place of birth were issues. Both were easily documented — Obama had all his papers in order — but questions persisted anyway and the Obama campaign, and finally the president himself, had to deal with them. Christie, I’m sure, was born somewhere — but can he prove it?
At the same time that Christie was being told to lose weight — an issue that will fade in time — others were surely preparing a game book about how to handle him in one of the many presidential debates coming up. The book would certainly say that he should be jabbed, incited and challenged. The purpose is to have him lose his temper. He has, in the past, responded to a question regarding where his children go to school with a dismissive “none of your business.” (Really? Try that on one of the Sunday shows.) In the prelude to Hurricane Irene, he ordered everyone to “get the hell off the beach,” a bit of Joisey speak that might go unappreciated in Mason City and other places in tranquil Iowa.
Christie’s temper represents an opportunity for his opponents and a real burden for him. He operates a lot on instinct, but that instinct can come off as bullying. So in New Jersey debates, he has dialed back his personality and comes off as flat. The quick retort, the cutting rejoinder — the classic “You’re no Jack Kennedy” moment — will never be his. He has to be nice, and nice is the one thing Chris Christie is not.
That edge, the air of menace, is precisely what commends Christie to some of his backers. Many of these are very successful businessmen who are accustomed to being their own men, to saying what they want and respecting others who do the same. Ken Langone, a founder of Home Depot, is a key Christie backer and has virtually organized the draft-Christie movement. But Langone also thought Richard Grasso, the former president of the New York Stock Exchange, deserved a $140 million golden parachute. Langone is an awesome philanthropist — New York’s Langone Medical Center is a monument to his big heart — but he sometimes does not have his finger on the pulse of the people.
When Christie wanted to attend one of his son’s baseball games, he used a state helicopter, landed in an adjacent field and took a car to the next-door game. When the reality-television show “Jersey Shore” came up for a $420,000 state tax credit, Christie blocked it. The governor has a problem discerning where the state leaves off and he begins. “Jersey Shore” is a lousy, tasteless program and a calumny to the Garden State, but Christie’s personal likes and dislikes are not the way tax credits should be granted. Similarly, a kid’s game is a parental obligation, not the state’s. Other fathers drive to the ballpark. Christie should have done the same.
Chris Christie is a keenly intelligent man who has the smarts and confidence to attract really good people as aides. But he’s been governor for less than two years — one inexperienced politician per decade in the White House is enough — and already he has exhibited the “tells” of grandiosity and implacable certainty. Washington’s problem now is that too many politicians think they have a lock on the truth. The town oozes belligerence and pettiness. Those are qualities Christie has in abundance. American politics now is a china shop. The last thing it needs is a bull like Christie.