Images are important and memes matter—which is why the viral screen capture of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie hugging Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones is worth noting today.
In case you missed it, cameras captured Christie (an admitted longtime Cowboys fan) celebrating the Cowboys come-from-behind victory over the Detroit Lions in the owner’s box on Sunday night. GIFs were created. Tweets were sent. Jokes were made. It became a thing. But does it matter?
One the one hand, you could argue it doesn’t. Assuming Christie does run for president, he probably won’t win his home state of New Jersey. As a recent New York Times article noted, Garden Staters “do not think he should run for president—they are, as the slogan goes, ready for Hillary—but most expect he will, and want him to resign if he does.” This is to say that Christie doesn’t have much to lose if he turns off some disgruntled Giants, Jets, or Eagles fans.
Rooting for the Cowboys also seems to underscore Christie’s status as an authentic truth-teller. In comparison to likely Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton (who, on different occasions, has presented herself as both a Chicago Cubs fan and a New York Yankees fan), one could view Christie’s support of Dallas as a sort of profile in courage. At least he’s not pandering.
There’s also the fact that there is something charming about catching Christie in the pure, unadulterated, climax of celebration. Adults tend to hide their emotions, but here we were revealed to a sort of winsome joy that was somewhere between a young child on Christmas morning and the Die Hard scene where ''Ode to Joy'’ comes on when Hans Gruber finally opens the vault.
Lastly, the Dallas Cowboys are America’s team, with legions of fans scattered all across the nation. A Republican candidate hoping to win red state support could find a worse team to root for than one from Dallas.
But! Those are the rosy scenarios. Christie has problems, and they begin with the fact that photos and videos and memes can haunt us. You don’t have to go back too far to find examples … Joe Lieberman “kissing” George W. Bush or Barack Obama hugging Charlie Crist … or, for that matter, Chris Christie “hugging” Barack Obama. (Maybe the guy is just a hugger?)
In each scenario, it matters greatly whom you hug. And let’s be honest, while the Dallas Cowboys might represent America’s team, Jerry Jones represents the worst qualities about the one percent. I mean, if you were casting a villain, he’d be on your short list. This is a guy who has his son-in-law clean his eyeglasses, for crying out loud. The man makes Dan Snyder almost seem likable. In other words, being pictured hugging him—in the owner’s box—works to undermine Chris Christie’s Springsteen-esque image as a blue collar working man’s Republican. (The fact that he was celebrating another loss for the star-crossed city of Detroit only enhances the symbolism.)
Now, I don’t want to make too much of this. Christie may have his faults, but he oozes the everyman persona. His hero, Bruce Springsteen, is a gazillionaire, but he still manages to come across as a regular guy, so perception is reality. Mitt Romney seemed like a rich guy. Chris Christie seems like a Joe Sixpack. It’s really hard to undermine our perceptions about someone’s natural temperament, but it is possible—and that’s why this is potentially dangerous for Christie. The most dangerous attacks are those that undermine your perceived strength.
This won’t happen in a vacuum, but imagine what happens if Chris Christie runs for president and someone puts serious money behind showing these images on television in political ads? All of a sudden, you could have a real problem. I think Bill Kristol hit the nail on the head with this Tweet: “Next week, Scott Walker will go to the Packers’ game, root for his state’s team, & sit in the cheap seats & freeze with the common people.”
It’s hard to fault someone for accepting a nice seat to see his favorite team in the playoffs. But nobody said this would be fair. Running for president ain’t beanbag. In the immortal words of Jerry Glanville, “This is the NFL, it means ‘Not For Long'” when you make mistakes.