It’s not charm, exactly, but it’s something close to it.
A sort of low-level, sort-of-humble charisma, perhaps. On Monday morning, I find myself watching New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie – delayed by several long minutes, which were filled with the anecdotes and rough, good ol’ boy charm of former ambassador Peter F. Secchia – work a conference room in the Sheraton Suites in Akron, Ohio.
Am I charmed? I ask myself. Enh. But I am watching, and listening, because he has…not a je ne sais quoi (it’s much less French than that, to be honest) but because there is something compelling about Chris Christie.
In this lightly golden conference room, full of 60 or so delegates from the state of Michigan and various media, Christie is making his first real public appearance since Indiana Gov. Mike Pence was officially selected to be Donald Trump’s VP nominee. Maybe I’m imagining it, but the Christie in front of me seems a touch bruised. Remember the boy at school who said he was over whatever mild trauma he’d endured, but everyone kept sneaking looks, just to see the pain etched on his face? Christie looked a little like that boy: valiantly trying to assure everyone (heads slightly tilted in sympathy) that he is OK. He is OK. HE IS OK. OK?
In his dark suit and brilliant red tie, Gov. Christie stood on a raised stage and started big. “We need a strong, resolute voice for freedom and liberty, and we haven’t had it for eight years,” he said to rapturous applause. It was the first of many bursts of applause that would ring out for the duration of his appearance (I stopped counting the standing ovations after the third time). He called Hillary a “flawed candidate” and brought up Michael Dukakis and John Kerry to a ripple of laughter. The room whooped once again a few minutes later when he delivered a line he would repeat more than once: “If you are not working for Donald Trump, you are working for Hillary Clinton. That’s the bottom line.” By the next day, Christie would find himself backing his talk with the walk – defending Trump’s wife, Melania, from plagiarism accusations, like a good foot soldier.
I’m not his target audience, obviously. I am not a Republican, and more importantly l am not a delegate from the state of Michigan. I’m not even an American citizen. So I am necessarily viewing him through the prism of my foreignness. And as a Brit, my default position is to be somewhat unnerved by anything approaching what might be construed as “charm”. It is the same instinct that allowed me to easily resist the Boris Johnson candidacy in the London mayoral election (twice!), and why I will always have lots of room in my heart for former prime minister Gordon Brown. Johnson’s schtick – bumbling and shambling, but always with this alleged charm – has always weirded me out. Why are you trying to disarm me, goddammit? Gordon Brown, on the other hand, was always awkward – a man whose shambling gait speaks more about personal discomfort than a calculated persona designed to humanise and blind us to any other faults.
I have a lot of time for the generally uncharming.
So I had at least a little time for Chris Christie on Monday. He has the demeanour of a semisweet pugilist, and looks it a bit, too: in the right light, there is a little bit of the older, less chiseled Sylvester Stallone about him. I can’t remember how I first became aware of Christie, but it must have been before I watched his interview with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show in 2012, following the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy. And maybe I wasn’t charmed by him, but I liked him more than I had expected to, watching him fanboy over Bruce Springsteen, while not letting Stewart get away with too much at his expense.
Here at the Republican Convention in 2016, with Bridgegate ongoing and a failed presidential bid in his past (“Trump was not my first choice,” he’d said earlier. “I was.”), Christie was back in almost-charming pit bull mode again, holding court in this Ohioan hotel. His big theme was unity – now was the time to stand behind Donald Trump, and pledge support for his nomination, instead of quibbling.
Weirdly, it was at this juncture that the almost-charm felt at its thinnest. His tale of how he’d come to be friends with the nominee (they were introduced by Trump’s older sister, Maryanne Trump Barry, because Trump felt – bear with me here – a little shy) felt cheap. Charm is a two-way street: It requires belief from the beneficiary. You need to find something to hitch your wagon to in there somewhere. So while I saw a few women chuckle with breathy delight when he told the story – how Donald Trump had been tentative to approach him directly, how generous a man he was – I saw a few men shift uncomfortably in their seats. They weren’t buying it, not fully. No matter how sweet the idea of classic "big sister" behaviour, they’d come for the attack dog, not a shy guy.
Christie soon won them back, though, talking about how important meritocracy is to Donald Trump. “This is somebody who cares more than anything else about the quality of the person,” he said, leaning in slightly for emphasis. “He cares about results. Wouldn’t it be great if we had a president of the United States who cares about results?” The audience whooped, and applauded again. Did I buy it? Not really.
Sailing on the palpable wave of goodwill, Christie wasn’t putting in particularly hard work. He’s not a classic bellower, nor is he professorial. His patter is conversational, normal – he’s no grand orator, so it’s a good thing the people weren’t looking for grand oratory. By the Q&A, the audience was eating out of his palm, practically nuzzling it. The delegates flattered him, asking him to consider the role of attorney general under a would-be President Trump. He chuckled, ducked his head just bashfully enough, and sidestepped any braggadocious pitfalls that my profession would’ve truly appreciated (at one point, in reply to a question about whether he would prosecute Hillary Clinton, he said, “It is very tempting to give in to what I know would be an enormous applause line”). When a dark-haired delegate, Mike Banerian, aka the youth vice-chair of the Michigan GOP, asked him a two-part question (we will never escape men at public events asking “two-part questions”), Christie elevated his game even further. Banerian’s second "question" had been for a photo with the governor; after a mild roasting about the inherent self-interest of the questions (the first had been about Christie coming to Michigan to talk to young people; the second had been met with appreciative applause at the audacity of hope). Christie invited Banerian up onstage for the photo op immediately.
He was sort of charismatic! He was kind of funny! He sounded a little like Jon Stewart’s wiseguy impression!
This is the Christie that the Trump Show had reduced to a sad meme. Here he stood adored, in his element as the down-to-earth Jersey guy – making jokes and getting to set the agenda. Yes, this is Trump’s moment, but in that conference room Christie was standing behind him only metaphorically. Even bruised, he was the centre of this show. All the jokes were his to make. He reveled in it. He was OK. He was better than OK.
Finally, in the moments he stood in front of this appreciative crowd, Chris Christie had achieved a state of pure charm.