Harlan Coben, the best-selling thriller writer, was 9 years old, another Newark refugee in Livingston, when he met Christie on a Little League field, the future governor a chunky kid in a catcher’s get-up coming toward him, saying his full name: Harlan Coben—Hi, I’m Chris Christie. “What 9-year-old does that?” Coben said to me 42 years later. New Jersey then was barely the Jersey we know now, but by the time Christie was a teenager and a Bruce Springsteen fan of extreme emotion and attachment, the persona of the state was beginning to take hold. Christie shares Springsteen’s Everyman persona, but Coben told me he thought there was another commonality, that each understood the power of the Jersey identity, “that to be something specific was to be something universal.” For a musician, this means a way to envelop a listener in the drama of his song. For a politician, it can mean an answer to the most basic question voters ask: What are you in this for beyond yourself?
There is a video available online of an incident on the boardwalk in Seaside Heights last July that—depending upon your view of the governor—is either comic or obscene. It is nighttime, and Christie is eating an ice-cream cone when a heckler walks past and says something to the governor about his war on the school system. At which point the governor, furious, charges down the boardwalk after his antagonist, ice-cream cone in hand, at first baiting the man, then taunting him. “You’re a real big shot, you’re a real big shot shooting your mouth off,” the governor yells, as the heckler eludes him—not all that difficult, given Christie’s sheer mass and the presence of the ice-cream cone. “Keep walking away,” the governor calls after him. “Really good. Keep walking.” It is possible to interpret this as just more bullying, which is how some of the state’s newspaper editorialists took it. But it is also the response of a man for whom argument is the ultimate form of human contact.
Christie is a small-craft warning of a human being; he is a rush of blood to the head; he is a bully. But the governor is something else, too, something that separates him from the nihilistic elements of his party and—maybe—gives him a chance to lead them. He is a believer.