Chris Christie takes the stage

The human opera takes the stage

Chris Christie is the GOP's most emotional candidate, but will the show get old?

Published on July 1, 2015


Chris Christie’s political mentor does not like to be touched. Everyone close to Bill Palatucci knows this about him. They especially know that Palatucci, a reserved Republican insider, really, really, really does not like to be hugged.

Above: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie delivers his 2015 State of the State address at the New Jersey State House. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

This is precisely why Christie can’t help hugging him.

“Sometimes I do it just to bug him,” Christie allows one afternoon with a sly grin at the governor’s high-ceilinged office in the New Jersey State House.

Above: New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie delivers his 2015 State of the State address at the New Jersey State House. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

Make or Break: Presidential candidates are a breed apart, often propelled by traits that have shaped their careers and have deep roots in their personal histories. In this occasional series, The Washington Post is exploring key characteristics of the leading contenders that could help make one of them the country’s next commander in chief -- or sink their presidential ambitions.

Also in this series:
Ted Cruz: Principled or know-it-all?
Rand Paul: Heir to a 'libertarianish' revolution
Marco Rubio: A man in a hurry
Mike Huckabee: Is this folksy showman willing to get meaner?
Rick Perry: Can he close the deal?
Hillary Clinton: She won't back down. Or go away.
Jeb Bush: A clan of ferocious competitors returns to the fray

But there’s another reason Christie hugs Palatucci, and it’s even more revealing.

“I want him to know that that’s the way I feel about him,” Christie says. “I know he feels that way about me. He just can’t express it.”

It matters not that Palatucci flinches; Christie must emote.

Christie, who entered the 2016 Republican presidential race Tuesday, instantly becomes the most emotive candidate in the crowded field — and one of the most publicly emotional politicians in recent memory to run for the nation’s highest office. He is, in a sense, a human opera — comedy, tragedy, farce, drama — all distilled in one utterly arresting package.

“L’opera di Christie” is a spectacle of his own creation, a demonstration of his remarkable ability to command a room, to draw a crowd, but also to offend and repel. His greatest strength lies in his ability to connect with people by displaying his humanity — not just his relatable struggle with his weight but also his unfiltered emotions, transmitting an air of authenticity in an overly scripted political universe. But his emotionalism carries risks, too: Will voters want to give the nuclear codes to a man who can be provoked to a crackling rage by a New Jersey boardwalk heckler?

Americans mostly know the upper end of Christie’s emotional scale, the explosive outbursts at news conferences and town hall meetings that have made it easy for opponents to label the governor a brute intimidator — “a bully and a punk,” as one rival New Jersey politician once called him.

But the 52-year-old, two-term governor’s emotional range stretches much broader — spanning from the volcanic to the poignant. He is a shouter and a crier.

His voice quaked and his eyes clouded with tears as he told an audience in Iowa earlier this year about his deep bond with his mother and her final moments, and he chokes up while visiting Hurricane Sandy victims. But he flat-out weeps when no one is looking — in the garage alone after sending his daughter to college, in the dark after his youngest son confided a profound sadness.

Once he tried to explain to his eldest boy, Andrew, that it’s okay to cry — in other words, it’s okay to be like his dad.

“I said to him, ‘You have to be secure in your own masculinity,’ ” Christie recalls. “If that’s what you feel, you should just let it out. . . . To me it’s kind of like the idea that life is to be felt. If you’re not feeling, then you’re missing out on a big part of it.”

So, this feelingest of governors follows where his emotions lead, sometimes to his benefit and sometimes to his detriment.

Christie at a March town hall meeting in Freehold, N.J. It was his 131st since taking office. For this series, Post photojournalists used a phone app with filters to capture the candidates as potential voters might. (Nikki Kahn/The Washington Post)

Palatucci certainly gets it when Christie hugs him. But many Republicans were less understanding when, days before the 2012 election, Christie locked arms with President Obama during a visit to New Jersey to survey Sandy damage. Christie, who was one of the top surrogates for Republican candidate Mitt Romney, was accused of hugging Obama (not so, he insists) and giving the president a late, much-needed boost by praising the federal response to the catastrophe.

Two days after the president’s visit, Christie says, he took a call from a donor who was, to put it mildly, displeased.

“I told him that we were still searching for missing people,” Christie recalls. “And when we were done with that I was happy to entertain his complaint, but until that time I had more important things to do.”

Then Christie hung up on him.

The man remained a donor. They never spoke of the incident again. There was no need, Christie says with a note of satisfaction and accomplishment in his voice. “We were both on the call.”

“He’s a New Jersey guy,” says Harlan Coben, a best-selling thriller novelist who is a childhood friend of Christie. “He wears his emotion on his sleeve.”

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In the beginning, there was noise. The volume was set on high in Christie’s childhood home. Always.

The family's house in Livingston, a comfortable northern New Jersey suburb, got its rhythm from the spikes and plunges of his parents’ emotional displays.

Bill yelled at Sondra. Sondra yelled at Bill.

“The two of them together was fairly combustible,” Christie says of his parents. “They used to argue like crazy. . . . They loved each other almost too intensely, and they couldn’t let anything go.”

Christies do everything big. Big hugs. Big I-love-yous. Big tears. Big fights. Big makeups.

His parents didn’t raise their children passively; they did it intensely.

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Chris Christie announced that he is running for president, casting himself as a candidate who can work with both political parties to ease the “anxiety” over government dysfunction he says has seized the American people. (Julio Cortez/The Associated Press)

“When they were with ya, they were with ya,” Christie remembers.

Christie was the eldest of three, and it fell to him to reconcile that cauldron of love and rage. Looking back, he realizes the thing that scares the children of feuding parents the most is the sinking dread that they’ll divorce.

Once he realized his parents weren’t splitting, he found the booming highs and the thudding lows were easier to manage. Years later, Christie would make a pact with his wife, Mary Pat, that they would never argue in front of their two sons and two daughters. He adopted his parents’ habit of hugging and constantly professing love for their children, but he didn’t want his kids to hear the crash and bang of disagreements. “It wasn’t a great atmosphere to have to deal with,” Christie says.

Christie’s mother, the product of a struggling Italian immigrant family, grew up in a single-mother home. She wanted her eldest son to be tough, but she wanted him to obey her. Yet she wasn’t hard-wired for compliance, and neither was her boy.

“My mother would have much preferred that I cowered and agreed. She was looking for capitulation,” Christie says. He aggravated her by refusing to give in.

But he could go only so far.

“I was living with two people who didn’t calibrate,” Christie says. “I had to learn — over time — to calibrate.”

He also learned that being pushy works. When Christie came home from junior high school gushing about a Republican state legislator who had spoken to the class that day, Sondra Christie, an avowed Democrat, piled her son into the car and drove him to the lawmaker’s house. When they got to the home of Thomas Kean, a future New Jersey governor who would become best known for chairing the 9/11 Commission, Christie’s mother told the teenager to knock on the door. Kean happened to be home, and he invited Christie to join him for a political event. Christie was hooked.

Christie spent many weekends with Nani — his maternal grandmother, Anne Grasso. His father, an accountant and staunch Republican, would drop him off on Friday nights and pick him up on Sunday. Neither of his siblings liked spending the weekend with Nani, but Christie looked forward it. The volume was set on low at Nani’s. His parents were voluble; Nani got her points across with an economy of words.

Nothing had come easy to Grasso. She had emigrated from Italy, scraped to make a living and did something almost unheard of in the 1940s — she divorced her husband after catching him cheating on her.

Christie greets President Obama upon his arrival at Atlantic City International Airport to visit areas damaged by Hurricane Sandy in October 2012. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

Nani took Christie into New York for theater productions, and on Sundays she would present him with the same ultimatum: If he wanted to watch football games or other sports, he had to sit through “Meet the Press” with her.

For Nani, he was willing to comply. Once, she placed a load of broccoli onto his plate at dinnertime, knowing he hated it. (He still does.) Christie took a few bites and ran off to the bathroom to throw up.

When he returned, there were four more stalks on his plate.

“I just got sick from this,” he said.

“Yeah, well,” she said, “you’ll learn.”

Make or Break: Presidential candidates are a breed apart, often propelled by traits that have shaped their careers and have deep roots in their personal histories. In this occasional series, The Washington Post is exploring key characteristics of the leading contenders that could help make one of them the country’s next commander in chief -- or sink their presidential ambitions.

Also in this series:
Ted Cruz: Principled or know-it-all?
Rand Paul: Heir to a 'libertarianish' revolution
Marco Rubio: A man in a hurry
Mike Huckabee: Is this folksy showman willing to get meaner?

At school, Christie also learned how to take grief from others. He played baseball and was popular enough to win student-body elections, but kids teased him about his acne.

He remembers only one fistfight in his life. He had heard that an older boy was bullying his brother, Todd, who is two years younger.

Christie, throughout his life, has had a tendency to intervene. He inserted himself into his brother’s troubles by walking down to the bus stop one morning.

“Leave him alone,” Christie remembers saying to the older boy, who responded by shoving Christie’s brother to the ground in front of him.

“So I hit him,” Christie says.

Down the boy went.

“He never bothered my brother again.”

A young Christie, right, is shown with parents Sondra and Bill Christie, sister Dawn and brother Todd during a family visit to the beach.
Christie with Mary Pat Foster during her graduation from the University of Delaware in 1985. The couple would marry the following year. (Photos courtesy of the office of Gov. Chris Christie)

Student government sounded like a breeze to some of the undergraduates at the University of Delaware. Lunches with school administrators. An office with a lounge and a couch!

Then they met Chris Christie.

Christie — who had enrolled at Delaware after he couldn’t get into his first choice, Georgetown — approached student government as asymmetrical warfare. Every campaign had to be carefully plotted; every issue was do-or-die. It was just too much for some students, and there were those who just drifted away, ceding ground to the fast-talking, perpetual-motion machine from New Jersey.

“His level of intensity is too much for some people,” says Leighton Lord, a Christie student-body government colleague and close friend who is now a political kingmaker in South Carolina. “There were people who definitely thought he took student-body government too seriously. They’d say: ‘It’s too much work. Like, chill out.’ ”

Christies don’t do chill.

Despite his intensity, Christie was a decided underdog in the race for student-body president before his senior year. He was challenged by one of the university’s most popular students, Lee Uniacke, now an online-gaming executive and a former regional official for the Little People of America. Uniacke, who is a dwarf, cut a familiar figure, riding through campus on a specially made bicycle, and he knew way more people than Christie.

Uniacke says he approached the campaign like, well, a student campaign. He put up some posters, told his friends to vote for him, made some fliers.

Christie, Uniacke says, went at the campaign like a seasoned pro, targeting the leaders of organizations on campus comprising students who might actually be relied upon to do something critical to any candidate: vote. A week after Christie’s election, Uniacke was still running into pals on campus who would tell him, “I’m going to vote for you!”

Christie’s voters knew what day the election was being held. He made sure of that.

In office, Christie went at the day-to-day intricacies the same way he had gone at the campaign: full throttle. He would grab Lord and say, “Let’s walk and talk.” They were always gaming out scenarios that might have meant little to the average student but meant everything to Christie, especially the question of whether students should be on the board of trustees, says Lord, who has remained a friend and admirer.

Christie identified a nemesis: a tough, blunt-talking school administrator named Arno Loessner.

“We gotta beat Loessner on this!” Lord remembers Christie repeating on their high-speed walks through campus. Sometimes, Christie tried the indirect route, dispatching Lord to press his case. But Loessner usually saw through that ploy.

“Did Christie put you up to this?” Lord recalls Loessner asking.

More often, Lord says, Christie and his nemesis would “go toe-to-toe.”

There was substance in their rivalry, but that wasn’t exactly why Lord remembers it so well.

“It became,” Lord says, searching for the right word, “entertaining!”

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At a political event in New Hampshire a while back, Palatucci recalls, one of the organizers walked up to Christie and told him, “We want to see the real Chris Christie.”

Christie looked back at the man and responded, “That’s the only thing I know how to be.”

Bill Palatucci, a Republican insider in New Jersey and a longtime political mentor to Christie. (William Perlman/Newark Star-Ledger)

When Christie arrives at events, the audiences don’t tend to know that much about his rise. Absent from their minds are his halting early political days — how he lost two elections and was disqualified from another for collecting qualifying signatures from the wrong district. At age 35, his political career might have been over when he couldn’t even hold his seat on a freeholders board, the equivalent of a county commission.

He resurrected himself from the inside rather than the outside, relying on Palatucci to press the George W. Bush administration to appoint him as a U.S. attorney, even though he had scant experience with criminal cases. That wider stage suited him best. He was the corruption-slaying prosecutor who put bad politicians in prison — and fought back when Democrats accused him of targeting them more often than Republicans.

Now, when he arrives at events, the audiences expect sound and fury. At a town hall meeting earlier this year, an arts instructor sat patiently waiting for Christie to appear even though she doesn’t approve of his management of the state. Seeing him in person was a “bucket list” item for her, a once-in-a-lifetime moment.

The audience has seen Christie unhinged before, and these images stoke their anticipation: Christie, in a video posted by TMZ, yelling at a man who heckled him about education policy while he was taking his family for ice cream on the Jersey Shore: “You’re a real big shot. . . . You’re a real big shot shootin’ your mouth off!” Christie calling a former Navy SEAL an “idiot.” (Christie says he regrets the name-calling but doesn’t regret shouting down the man for interrupting him.)

“After all this time, I think they think they’re going to see something exciting,” says Christie, who has held more than 130 town hall meetings since being elected governor in 2009. “And I think they think they’re going to see something real.”

But what is “real” in the mind of a Chris Christie audience? Is it bombast or tears or something in between? Can he walk into a room and not emote, yet not leave his audience wondering whether he was playing a role rather than playing himself?

He learned to calibrate as a child, but calibrating as a politician is harder, especially when you’ve starred in the pyrotechnic Chris Christie Show for so long.

“I tell people all the time that I have more than one club in the bag,” Christie says. “The only thing that people seem to acknowledge is the driver. But you know, 40 yards from the green, I have a pitching wedge that I can use. Five feet from the cup, I have a putter. I can use that, too. And you don’t get elected twice in New Jersey as a Republican if you can’t do that stuff.”

Long before he was a politician, before he could lay a claim to being the conservative who conquered a blue state, Christie would go to the opera with his Nani. He chuckled about this during a commencement address. It’s hard to fathom him sitting in the audience at the opera, he suggested. And on this point, he was correct.

It’s easier to imagine him on the stage.

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Chris Christie speaks during a town hall meeting March 24 in Whippany, N.J. (Julio Cortez/AP)