Mark D. Weinberg, a communications consultant and speechwriter, served as a special assistant and assistant press secretary to President Ronald Reagan.
By addressing national issues in his recent State of the State speech, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) took another step toward a presidential campaign. As a New Jersey Republican, I should be one of the first in line to support him. But, boy, does he make it hard sometimes.
It’s not that Christie lacks intelligence. Clearly, he has the smarts for the presidency. Nor does he lack executive skills. He’s doing good things for New Jersey and works well with an often-hostile legislature.
But there’s something about how he conducts himself that gives one pause.
Consider this: The day before being elected president in a landslide after a long and arduous campaign, a tired Ronald Reagan said to a persistent heckler at a rally in San Diego: “Aw, shut up!” The crowd responded with a sustained ovation.
What made that moment important was how out of character it was for Reagan, a man of almost inexhaustible patience and self-control, impeccable manners and respect for others. Far from being defining, it was seen as an aberration. But it also showed people that even the good-humored Reagan had a breaking point. In a way, it was reassuring.
That stands in stark contrast to Christie’s retort to a heckler who interrupted him last fall to complain about the lack of government support to residents of towns devastated by Hurricane Sandy. In what has, unfortunately, become characteristic Christie style, the governor told the man to “sit down and shut up.” Some in the crowd applauded, but many observers were unimpressed by the governor’s thin skin, impatience and rudeness — again. It was not the first time he let a heckler get the best of him.
Among Republicans, and perhaps the electorate at large, there is understandably some appeal to Christie’s “I’m in charge and won’t tolerate any BS” manner, especially given its sharp contrast to “no drama Obama.” But, really, neither style is good. Rarely do playground bullies or those “too cool for school” make effective leaders.
When asked about his blustery demeanor, Christie often turns into Popeye — “I yam who I yam” — as if he were incapable of or, worse, uninterested in change or growth. Being true to one’s self is good, but no one who seeks elective office should assume he is perfect just as he is.
The modern-day presidency requires many things: integrity, intelligence, wisdom, vision, strength, courage, humility, optimism, patience and maturity, among them. In short, it requires one to be “presidential.”
Telling opponents — even rude ones — to “sit down and shut up” may make for good YouTube content, but is it really what we want from someone we expect to work with other world leaders, not to mention a prickly Congress, devious foes and unstable dictators? The leader of the free world should be the calmest person in the room, not the first to pull hair or throw sand.
Much has been made recently of Christie’s running around the country to support the Dallas Cowboys. While his behavior would be more understandable were he a fan of the Jets or Giants, both of which play their home games in New Jersey, Christie is fully entitled to root for whatever sports team he wants. The issue is not his choice of team but that he seemed not to care how he was perceived. News flash, governor: Optics matter.
If Christie continues to indulge his penchant for lashing out and doing whatever the heck he pleases, any presidential campaign of his risks becoming a game in which reporters wait to see how long it takes for someone — a voter at a town hall in Iowa, New Hampshire or South Carolina, perhaps — to provoke an explosion. Impatient reporters might even pose impertinent questions themselves, trying to cause Christie to erupt. Neither scenario would be appealing — or particularly useful in evaluating the qualifications of a candidate for the presidency.
Fortunately for him, Christie is tight with the best political pros in the business, the brilliant strategist Mike DuHaime and the highly respected veteran Republican operative Bill Palatucci. Surely, the three of them can develop a strategy that preserves what makes Christie popular while establishing him as someone the country would feel comfortable putting in the Oval Office.
How Christie would manage the economy, keep the country safe and conduct foreign policy are far more important than whether a questioner gets under his skin or what football team he supports. It’s entirely up to him which side of him we assess.