I recall Chris Christie’s first interview with our editorial board after he won the 2009 election. We asked what had changed in his life now that he was governor of New Jersey.
He said the perk he enjoyed the most at that point: when the governor went through a Hudson River tunnel, police shut it down. There was no traffic at all. He and his motorcade would speed through without a car in sight.
In hindsight, it would have been more ironic if the governor had said it was the George Washington Bridge, but life doesn’t always give you the punchlines you want.
The eight-year Christie era officially ends on Tuesday. Looking back, his tenure can be divided into three categories: the good, the bad and the uniquely Christie.
The governor’s fight against opioid abuse won him national praise. But the standing ovation really should go to the Christie who pushed for drug courts, treatment over incarceration and the near elimination of cash bail. No other governor could have done so much to right the scales of justice for minorities and low-income defendants. None of this is sexy to voters in national primaries, which makes these initiatives so much more important in judging all that was Christie. He was capable of being a great leader.
Then came Superstorm Sandy— the event that made Christie a national figure even as it pretty much set in motion everything that destroyed him. It fed his ego. The national attention he received in his blue fleece telling someone to get off the beach, the bombast that was akin to a happy King Lear, not howling at the wind, but pushing the wind back. He seemed invincible.
After Sandy, Christie was a rising Republican star. Everything he did was now seen through a rosy prism. He was the Republican governor of a blue state getting things done. To be clear: New Jersey is neither blue nor red. It’s madras. Tom Kean, Christie Whitman — Republicans had won statewide before. New Jersey wanted a reformer in 2009 and Christie seemed to fit that bill.
But the attention played to an underlying vanity. As his first term ended, it was clear that the people close to him who once kept his worse impulses in check were gone.
The most telling moment from Christie’s final State of the State address this month was a sentence he ad-libbed. The prepared text read: “We ran to be a Governor who did not just mark time. We ran to win and to be a Governor of consequence.” What Christie said during the speech was, “I ran to win. I always ran to win. I ran to be a governor of consequence.”
“I always ran to win.”
That’s it in a nutshell. The fatal flaw. A chief executive consumed with winning who would assemble a team consumed with his winning. It explains more than anything how Bridgegate could come to pass, how a smart, politically savvy man like Christie could put so many of the wrong people in high-profile jobs. Did he know before the George Washington Bridge lane closures, during the lane closures or shortly after the lane closures that created a massive four-day traffic jam? At this point it matters less than that he always knew too many people on his team were capable of being punitive, petty and destructive in the cause of Christie winning.
At some point before the traffic problems in Fort Lee, the Christie team ceased to be for New Jersey and instead doubled down for the boss.
Christie tried to minimize the scandal. He wasted millions of taxpayer dollars on a whitewash report prepared by high-priced lawyers. He bled NJ Transit dry.
He bullied. He baited. And just as Sandy had made him a star, Bridgegate made him a pariah. Not all at once. But by the time he left New Jersey to raise money for Republican governors across the nation and then to openly pursue the presidency, he was already failing in New Jersey.
I once was as close to a Christie cheerleader as he could find in the New Jersey media. There was a time when I believed he was the real deal. He was funny, well informed and enjoyed a vigorous debate on issues — at least off the record.
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The brilliance of Christie remains somewhere inside him, but he was not the greatest natural politician I will ever see. The greatest natural politician would never forget that he was entirely dependent on the charity of others — voters. Christie once told a young man at a town hall who asked how to get into politics that you first have to ask people for their votes. He said a candidate had to recognize that voters could choose anyone they wanted, that receiving a vote was a gift.
The governor forgot that lesson or, as his ratings tanked, decided it no longer mattered. He became more important than anything. It was not about New Jersey winning, but Christie winning.
Voters elected Christie to serve until Jan. 16, 2018, but he checked out on Election Day 2013.
He should have striven to be a great governor of the State of New Jersey. Instead, he chose to be Chris Christie.
Alfred P. Doblin is the editorial page editor of The Record, where this column first appeared. Follow him on Twitter: @AlfredPDoblin