Every politician stands before podiums. But no figure in American public life—perhaps no one since Huey Long—inhabits a bully pulpit as fully as New Jersey governor Chris Christie. Approaching a microphone, he tripods his elbows onto the stand, then lets his mass settle in behind him in a heavy, fluid pour—he occupies a podium the way cement occupies a trench. What usually follows, and what has characterized his political rise, is an exasperated, grandiloquent bawling out of some obscure, tiny man. This sometimes surfaced in his press conferences last week, but there was a grander strain, too. It was as if in this storm—this act of God—Christie had discovered something he had not yet found in his public life: He had found an opponent worthy of himself.
The governor’s default political posture is High Ahab; the view from his quarterdeck in Trenton is filled with white whales. As Hurricane Sandy approached, Christie fixed on the denizens of the Jersey shore’s barrier islands who would not evacuate. “Selfish,” the governor fulminated. “Stupid.” As the storm surged over Atlantic City’s boardwalk, swamping 70 percent of the city’s streets and pulling bridges down as easily as if they were diving boards, Christie’s wrath focused on Atlantic City’s mayor, Lorenzo Langford, who had the temerity to hedge while encouraging his city’s residents to evacuate. Christie denounced Langford and others presumptive enough to “ignore my admonition”—Christie’s capacity for assumed authority can verge on the biblical. “This is now your responsibility.” On Wednesday, he issued an executive proclamation postponing, by five days, Halloween.
This is where we’ve come to locate the Jersey in Christie—in the lugubrious Tony Soprano pout, the stagy display of menace as a seduction technique. But one of the governor’s truest political gifts is a clear sense for what people in a hugely prosperous state are sentimental about: a fading memory of their own ordinariness. (Few Republicans would cop, as Christie does, to being so moved by Springsteen in concert as to fall into a meditative state, eyes shut.) Arriving by helicopter to view the damage in Seaside Heights, he remembered the “dumpy little house” he and “like twelve guys” had jammed into for one week after they graduated from high school, “sleeping almost on top of one another.” Poking through the fog, he tried to locate a sausage-and-pepper-and-lemonade stand he knew, only to discover that the entire structure was gone. Christie’s peculiar populism, in which a working-class nostalgia bleeds into a hard-edged defense of the successful, is also very New Jersey.
Which brings us to the defining gesture of Christie’s political career so far: His embrace, after the storm, of President Obama—a man whom two weeks earlier the governor had called arrogant, wondering, “What the hell is he doing asking for another four years?” Suddenly, they were together, two politicians who double as literary archetypes—the rector and the brawler—looking down over battered amusement parks and swallowed towns, each borrowing the other’s authority and reputation for empathy to enhance his own. The president’s response was “outstanding,” Christie said; Obama “deserves great credit.” When he was asked on Fox News whether he’d also tour the state with Mitt Romney, the governor dismissed the question as absurd: “I’ve got a job to do in New Jersey, and it’s much bigger than presidential politics.” The reaction was divided between those (mainly Democrats) who viewed his gesture as heroic and those (Republicans and cynics) who detected some tactical play for the White House in 2016 and argued that Christie was nothing but a megalomaniac.
As if heroism and megalomania are not very often the same exact thing. One of the few things that Christie and Obama share is a palpable sense that their political opponents are lesser men, though in Obama this exhibits itself as an airy idealism and in Christie as an all-encompassing disgust. What the president’s embrace gave Christie was a grand identity—a national leader, bigger than politics—that for once matched his own self-image. And so here he was, Chris Christie, guardian of the boardwalk, canceler of Halloween, bard of the sausage-and-pepper stand, raging against the storm, ministering to sorrow, a man in full.