The first time I met Chris Christie in the winter of 2011 he joked, in a self-deprecating manner that caught me off guard, that I must’ve pulled “the short straw” to be assigned to cover him.
“Well,” he said, “we’re going to do our best to keep you entertained.”
That he has.
I’ve reported on Christie, as governor and national political celebrity, for five years, first for The Philadelphia Inquirer and now for WNYC. For the last two years, almost every night after work, I worked on a book about him. It publishes today, from Simon & Schuster. I called it “American Governor: Chris Christie’s Bridge to Redemption.”
Yes, there’s a lot in there about Bridgegate.
But what I also sought to do with the book is pry open a window into Christie’s personality. And that goes beyond the entertaining personality that he had promised from the start. America has grown increasingly familiar with that Christie — the humor, the bombast, the captivating communicator from the bully pulpit.
I learned that Christie is driven, at least in part, by not just career ambition but by a lifelong desire to be president of the United States. He is taken with, and sometimes preoccupied by, the perks of high political life — gratis travel, famous friends and the national TV spotlight. He was the first in his family to fully achieve the American dream, and he lives that dream as fully as he can.
Christie likes to say he’s half Irish and half Sicilian, but many of his ancestors actually came from Germany in the 1850s and 1860s — they were probably fleeing the wars of German unification as refugees of their time. The men in Christie’s family line were undereducated factory workers in Newark, beset at times by alcoholism and unemployment. Strong women had the greatest influence on young Chris — from a grandmother who divorced her husband for cheating on her, then raised a family on her own while working a job at the IRS, to his own mother, who split from her first husband due to abuse.
Christie’s parents never divorced but they fought all the time, which had an effect on young Chris. Christie became a peacemaker of sorts but he also inherited his mother’s propensity for a good argument — which marked Christie’s own household once he married, too.
Chris and Mary Pat Foster were newlyweds in 1986, when the Mets were making a miracle playoff run. After work every day Mary Pat wanted to talk about their days but Chris wanted to watch the Mets. This caused a considerable amount of tension. They went to marriage counseling, and they actually delayed having children until about seven years into their marriage when they felt things were more stable.
To this day, though, they argue loudly. He doesn’t want to expose his kids to the same arguing that he used to hear, so they yell in Mary Pat’s walk-in closet, away from the kids and the state police security detail.
As I recount in the book, I’ve been on the receiving end of Christie’s anger myself — including when he used a colorful word to threaten to kick me out of his office when I asked too many questions about Bridgegate. Yet I don’t believe the governor is a fundamentally angry man. Rather, he is deeply emotional.
After Sandy, I saw how he’d warmly hug victims at the Jersey Shore, almost as if he was absorbing their pain into that famous fleece he was wearing. I saw him hold back tears talking to Oprah Winfrey about his lifelong struggles with weight. And a few days after Bridgegate broke in January 2014 I walked by his statehouse office, looked through the glass doors, and I saw him crestfallen.
I figured it was due to the scandal that was threatening to derail his political future. And it was — but that was just part of the story.
In fact, he had just returned from a funeral for the wife of one of his cabinet members, Civil Service Commission Chair Robert Czech. She was Czech’s caregiver, and she had just died in a tragic car accident. Christie recounted to me, in starkly emotional terms, what it was like at this funeral.
Czech has ALS, Lou Gherig’s Disease. He relies on a wheelchair; he can’t speak and he can’t move his hands. At his wife’s funeral, he couldn’t fit his wheelchair into the pews. So Christie described how Czech’s daughters had to keep going into the aisle to wipe tears from their father’s eyes.
“You realize things could be worse,” Christie told me. “And that you have to remember things you’re blessed with—your own health, your family’s health. You don’t feel bad for yourself at that moment.”
The next day, he won 51 percent of the Hispanic vote — an extraordinary high number for a Republican today. The day after that, he returned to Union City to affirm his commitment to Hispanics.
Christie told the group in this private meeting that “we don’t have problems — we have challenges that we will overcome.” That funeral for Czech’s wife — “that was a problem.”
“There’s not a person in this room I don’t have love and respect for, and that—that—is what really matters in life,” Christie said. “The rest of this st we’ll shoulder through.”