CHICAGO — Here was a political odd couple, gabbing about Big East basketball and flood insurance, a man who relished being president and a man who relishes all the buzz that he might be the next one.
As they sank into plush armchairs on a Chicago stage Friday afternoon, former president Bill Clinton and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie taught a seminar on disaster preparation and recovery. Christie held forth as the savior of the Jersey Shore; Clinton as the past rescuer of Tornado Alley.
For Christie, a Republican running for reelection this year in a blue state, it was a golden opportunity to bask in praise heaped upon him by Clinton, one of the nation’s most popular Democrats. The positive publicity Christie received after last fall’s Hurricane Sandy, Clinton declared, was “entirely well deserved.”
Left undiscussed was the circumstance the two men could confront in a few years, when Clinton’s wife, Hillary, may find herself running for president against Christie.
But on Friday in Chicago, at least, 2016 seemed awfully far away as both men held “a conversation on leadership” at the close of the Clinton Global Initiative America meeting.
In a hotel ballroom that became the nucleus of Clinton World — packed with political supporters of yesteryear, nonprofit directors, corporate chiefs, Democratic governors and mayors — the 42nd president affectionately introduced Christie.
“Now we’re gonna have a little fun,” Clinton said, noting that the New Jersey Republican is “a man whose reputation I have virtually ruined more than once.”
One of those times was at a Big East tournament basketball game. Clinton recalled being seated near Christie, and he started talking to him. He joked that pictures of them chatting would “wreck” Christie’s reputation in the national GOP.
“He’s consorting with a leper!” Clinton quipped. But, he added, Christie “never blinked.”
Clinton clearly was in charge — his last name was imprinted nine times on the stage — and he asked the questions.
Clinton drilled down into the details of the recovery of New Jersey’s shoreline: How much has the state government worked with insurance companies? What advice does Christie have for mayors and governors of other coastal areas? For federal agencies?
Clinton asked, “If you could make federal policy just by fiat . . . ”
“How great would that be?” Christie interjected.
And so it went.
Clinton told Christie, “The enduring image most Americans have of you is standing there in your jacket grieving with your people, working with them and working with the president. And you got both praise and damnation for ignoring the political differences that you had then and still have with the president and all of us who are in the other party to do something which is really important.”
Many of Christie’s responses sounded like a tourism pitch.
“There is a real romantic attraction to the Jersey Shore,” he said, adding that he was at the shore over Memorial Day weekend to reopen the boardwalks. “I can’t tell ya how many people just came up to me, grabbing at me and saying, ‘Thank you for giving us the Shore back.’ ”
When the talk got too Jersey for the audience of global thinkers, Clinton turned to the crowd and offered some perspective. You may live in Nebraska, Clinton said, but your river could flood or your house could get blown away by a tornado.
Christie said, “Even if you have no interest in this subject, you’re paying to rebuild the Jersey Shore right now — in Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas, South Dakota, North Dakota, you’re paying . . . ”
He forgot one important state.
“Arkansas, too, of course, Mr. President,” Christie added, to which Clinton quipped, “You’ve paid enough for us to grow crops for so many years for us to send some money back.”
As they chit-chatted past their allotted time, a handler notified Clinton that Christie was due to leave for the airport.
“Just ignore that, Mr. President,” Christie said.
Clinton responded, “Neither one of us control the Chicago airport — yet.”