Politics

01.14.13

Chris Christie Is the Latest Jersey Joke but His Fans Don’t Seem to Care

The New Jersey governor epitomizes Jersey style from tough guy Tony Soprano to football coach Bill Parcells, but running a state is different than TV or a football game. Just ask Fort Lee.

Here are some things that New Jersey people like: deep-fried hot dogs and artisan cocktails; 1993 Chevrolet Camaros and purebred horses; the Philadelphia Phillies and the New York Mets; and of course, Bruce Springsteen. The point about New Jersey, a comparatively small state—you can drive its entire length on the New Jersey Turnpike in either two or 17 hours, depending on traffic—is that it contains the contradictory multitudes of a place twice its size. There is a secret, complicated, and self-defeating vastness to it. This is also true of every other place, of course.

What binds those of us who grew up there, beyond the knives-out defensiveness that comes with life on the business end of various lazy national punchlines, is a vexingly complex self-image issue. For all the variations in how we live in New Jersey—think of the short geographic distances and vast cultural and economic continents between Camden and Cherry Hill, or Newark and Livingston—every New Jersey resident shares this same birthright. We can all call ourselves children of the Garden State. It's something. It's several things.

Humans that we are, we do not always use this particularly fraught sort of credibility—the chip on our collective shoulder that can mean whatever we individually need it to mean—in responsible ways. We can play down to the most demeaning Jersey stereotypes, high and low, as a way of showing how little we think of those stereotypes. We tend lazily to explain, and at worst inexcusably excuse, the most self-defeating defiance and brazen bullshit and craven corrupt smallness—in our elites and elected officials and by association in ourselves—with an offhand "that's just Jersey." We accept an insulting perception that we rightly hate as a reality that we can't escape.

So we remake our state out of new mistakes every day, but we also give the world Born To Run and American Pastoral and The Sopranos and the aforementioned deep-fried hot dogs. We elect politicians to represent us, and sometimes they represent us entirely too well. Which brings us to Chris Christie.

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It seems safe to assume that we do not know nearly as much as we someday will about what went on with the punitive and not-strictly-scientific "traffic study" that some of Governor Christie's closest aides commissioned, with or without his knowledge, in Fort Lee last September. What the governor knew and when, why and how such a needless and stupid thing happened, what impact this instant classic of ham-fisted ratfuckery might have on Christie's ambitions for national office—these are questions whose answers have either not emerged from investigations that have only just begun, or are the sort of cable news non-questions designed to be loudly unanswerable. Leave them to the future.

Instead, let's talk about Chris Christie's true political base, and the people whose most irresponsible fantasies Christie routinely gives finger-wagging shape on the stump. Let's talk about the Bill Parcells Dads of New Jersey. While Christie is best known for his performative and public love for Bruce Springsteen—given Springsteen's empathetic populism, this can be a fraught relationship—he is the true aesthetic heir of Parcells, the Jersey-born football genius who won two Super Bowls with the New York Giants and went on to coach, always biliously and always brilliantly, three other NFL teams, including Christie's beloved Dallas Cowboys.

If Christie's rhetoric is pure re-heated "Sopranos" steam-tray manicotti—his encouragement to “take the bat” to a state senator he doesn’t like; the blunt-object menace of the nice-traffic-lanes-it'd-be-a-shame-if-something-happened-to-them taunts that Christie delivered in his first press conference after those now-infamous traffic jams—Christie's snarling dad-appeal is rooted in Parcells' enduring resonance.

Which is interesting in itself, because Parcells is not outwardly the most appealing figure. While Parcells's successes earned him a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he was known during his coaching days as a grim authoritarian and world-class grudge-carrier, a serial belittler of reporters, kickers, and others littler than he—no coach has ever seemed to relish punitive personnel moves quite so much. He was also a brilliant coach and mentor to other brilliant coaches; the amusingly ulcerous New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick, a former Parcells assistant, carries on The Parcells Way to this day. None have ever done vengeful bullying impatience quite the way Parcells did, but Christie, at his imperious, teacher-berating, score-settling best/worst, has come close.

Of course, there's an element of abstraction to the armchair reverence fans can have for a glowering, blustering authoritarian when he's a football coach. Everything's bigger in the NFL, and the league depends to a great degree on creating a complicated state of simultaneous closeness and distance. Fans care about their teams, but always in the abstracted way that they might care about a favorite television show; they would no more readily consent to a workplace as dangerous and cruelly contingent as the NFL gridiron than they would accept an unappeasable bully like Bill Parcells as a boss.

The wince-inducing emails that continue to emerge from the Christie aides behind L'affaire Fort Lee are the latest reminder of the extent to which generations of cheapjack mafia parody have penetrated the consciousnesses and shaped the vocabularies of even Jersey's prep-schooled political elites, Christie included. But they're perhaps most damning in how clearly they reflect what it looks like when something much more complicated and important than a football team is run by people whose values and understanding of their jobs' responsibilities are roughly congruent with a football coach's.

In the NFL, where abstraction and overage are everything, head-to-head binaries and revenge and scorekeeping mean one thing, and nepotism and vanity and shortsightedness and obsessive, blinkered hyper-competitiveness don't mean quite as much. In one of the most powerful governor's offices in the nation, it seems important that they mean something more than that. This is a reminder of what it looks like when they don't.

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Given that New Jersey has been governed by people roughly as vain, venal and small as Christie—style points aside, Christie is certainly not the first Garden State governor, from either party, to run the state as a bellowing advertisement for himself—there's a certain inevitable lack of surprise at the last week's events. The baroque specifics are different, naturally. But the culture Christie created and the character he plays are as familiar as they are ugly, and they are ugly. Which is not to say that there's nothing to laugh at here.

As terrible as it is to see the corniest Jersey jokes updated and re-confirmed—to be re-reminded of how naturally the state's political culture reverts to self-satirizing type—there is some some dark, stubborn mirth to be found in the persistence of those who still see Christie as more than what he has shown himself to be. Where we now see clearly another in a long line of mugs—the latest blundering vainglorious pseudo-strongman with a jutting glass jaw and an outsized sense of self—Christie's dead-enders still see a sui generis leader of unique toughness and uncommon skill.

"Men today have learned the lesson the hard way that if you act like kind of an old-fashioned guy's guy, you're in constant danger of slipping out and saying something that's going to get you in trouble and make you look like a sexist or make you look like you seem thuggish or whatever," Fox News's Brit Hume recently grumbled in Christie’s defense. "This guy is very much an old-fashioned masculine, muscular guy, and there are political risks associated with that." It can be difficult for those who have grown accustomed to saying "that's just Jersey" every time this sort of thing happens to feel much beyond a familiar disappointment at having to say it again. But there's at least a weary and familiar solidarity at being able to chuckle at those who don't know New Jersey so blithely pretending not to know how this old story ends.