By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, February 16, 2011; 8:00 PM
New Jersey Republican Gov. Chris Christie's first big speech in Washington was titled, "It's Time to Do the Big Things," and, sure enough, it didn't take him long to make a fat joke.
Recalling that his predecessor, Democrat Jon Corzine, slept on a cot in the office when the state government shut down, Christie said he issued a warning to state legislators.
"I'm not moving any cot into this office," the fast-talking governor said in his north Jersey dialect. "You close down the government, I'm gettin' in those black SUVs with the troopers, I'm goin' to the governor's residence, gonna go upstairs, gonna open a beer, gonna order a pizza, I'm gonna watch the Mets. And when you decide to reopen the government, gimme a call, and I'll come back, but don't think I'm sleepin' on some cot. Take a look at me. You think I'm sleepin' on a cot? Not happenin'."
As usual, New Jersey's portly chief made the joke about himself - and that is a source of his plus-size appeal. He acknowledged during the campaign that "I'm pretty fat" and correctly forecast that on Election Day he would be a "big, fat winner." Now that he's in office, some commentators have speculated that his girth disqualifies him as a presidential contender.
But his physique also works to his advantage by reinforcing Christie's appeal as something other than the blow-dried politician who says whatever the voters want to hear. Christie isn't pretty, and he tells ugly truths.
He took his black SUVs with the troopers over to the American Enterprise Institute on Wednesday afternoon to scold both parties in Washington for their failure to talk about what must be done to solve the debt crisis.
"The president's not talking about it because he's waiting for the Republicans to talk about it," Christie said. "And our new, bold Republicans that we just sent to the House of Representatives? They're not talking about it because they're waiting for him to talk about it."
Christie, however, is talking about it. "You're going to have to raise the retirement age for Social Security," he said. "Whoa-ho! I just said it, and I'm still standing here. I did not vaporize into the carpeting, and I said it."
He resumed: "We have to reform Medicare because it costs too much and it is going to bankrupt us. Once again, lightning did not come through the windows and strike me dead!"
At home, Christie has been a skunk in the Garden State. He's made a long list of enemies: from the bitter 2007 campaign, his killing of the Hudson River tunnel, his sitting out a recent snowstorm in Florida and his gleeful fights with the unions. He recounted with unseemly pleasure his speech to 7,500 Jersey firefighters after proposing to cut their pensions. "I was booed lustily," he said, after suggesting that the firefighters had been drinking alcohol at lunch. "I made my way up to the stage, they booed some more. I got to the microphone, they booed some more. I said, 'Come on, you can do better than that' - and they did!"
His reception in Washington was rather more favorable. Political journalists crowded into the room for his appearance, taking notes so furiously on their laptops that it sounded like rain.
From Christie, they were hearing a different sort of message. Unlike the angry Tea Party rebel, this blue-state governor said nothing about guns and gays. He said he didn't join Republican governors' lawsuit against Obama's health-care reform because "I don't have the money to be playing around with this stuff now." He had only nice words for New York's Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo, and said pointedly that "I'm not looking for the president to fail."
The scholar who introduced Christie speculated about whether he would follow that other New Jersey governor, Woodrow Wilson, in moving from Trenton to Washington. As he has before, Christie ruled out a run for the White House - not the non-denial denials of his peers, but a categorical denial. "What do I have to do short of suicide to convince people I'm not running?" he asked. "Apparently I actually have to commit suicide."
Setting aside his own presidential ambitions for now makes Christie's warning to Washington all the more potent - and the jaundiced pols of this town would do well to listen as the fat governor gives them the skinny.
"You just have to have the spine to say, 'I'm going to take the risk,' " the governor coaxed. "I think that's what we elect leaders for. Hence the name."