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Column: Politics Can Be a Beach

NEW JERSEY (CBS) — If ever I learned a lesson the hard way it was courtesy of New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.  The lesson?  Never build a politician up in your head too much. They’ll disappoint you every time.

According to the latest Monmouth University Poll of Garden State residents released this week, I’m in good company.   Christie has wilted to a 15% approval rating, while 80% said they disapproved of the job he was doing.  Are these poor numbers related to taxes, or budgets, or legislative items?  To a degree, but not enough to crater his approval to this extent.  No, his problem is far more obvious and human.

Governor Christie has become nothing more than an unlikeable, arrogant jerk. Worse, he seems to relish it.  He’s just not the man so many of us thought he was.

I can only speak for myself here, but I recall well hosting a radio show in Kansas City, Missouri the first time I’d ever heard of Christie.  For those well versed in New Jersey politics, I realize I’m about to sound naive to you, but it’s important to understand an outsider’s perspective about him.

He was the original Donald Trump candidate.  And before Trump voters get wound up about what that means or how to define it – all I mean is simply this.  He was an unconventional Republican. He was big, loud, brash, glib, and fearless in the arena.  He feared no union.  No reporter cowed him.  He articulated his positions, even if they were unpopular, and starred anyone in the eye confidently defending those positions no matter how loud the jeers.

It was refreshing and exciting.  Certainly, it was a far cry from the John McCain presidential candidacy that had just let Republicans down. When Christie’s first gubernatorial campaign became national news, conservatives like me were still licking our wounds over President Obama’s first victory.

How could a guy like Obama win?  My conclusion was the GOP was afraid of its own shadow – scared of being labeled bigoted or racist for simply identifying and describing Obama’s ideology and politics for what they were. I kept wishing, “If only someone were bold enough to stare down the smug and phony ‘we’re the ones we’ve been waiting for’ garbage – there would be time to save the country.  But who on Earth was that in the GOP?”

Travel back to that time.  Obama, Reid, and Pelosi ran Washington.  Stimulus, bailouts, and Obamacare gave birth to a movement of voters who felt no one represented them anymore.  The TEA Party was born.  Traditional conservatives were desperate for a hero and it seemed to me he’d been found in a deep blue state.

By the time we launched our new radio show in Philadelphia, which can also be heard throughout neighboring New Jersey, I was positively giddy.  Tom Corbett had just become the Republican Governor of Pennsylvania with a Republican controlled Harrisburg.  Governor Christie was riding high in his first full year.  The GOP took back the House of Representatives in D.C.

Things were about to change.  I begged to get the new star of the GOP on our show.  By mid-2011 it was already time to begin thinking about making Obama a one-term president.  Christie would be the guy to do it.  I knew it!  Glib, self-deprecating, good in variety show/pop culture settings – but also a tough and fearless debater – he was the total package and I wrote and spoke often about him that way.

We eventually did get him to appear on the show.  Once.  Shamelessly, I begged him to run.  He demurred, but I was confident he was just being coy.  Soon after he delivered a much-anticipated, nationally televised Reagan Library speech.  Mrs. Reagan herself invited him.  She too, thought he was the GOP’s future. A woman in the library audience stood and begged the Governor to set aside his doubts and do it for the nation who needed him.

It’s almost hard to remember or imagine now, isn’t it? But, as radio legend Paul Harvey said, you know the rest of the story.

Christie would ultimately decide he wasn’t ready to be president.  Mitt Romney became the GOP nominee. A super storm hit the New Jersey coast. Christie took a walk on the beach with his new buddy Obama and blew Romney off.  It helped Christie win a second term in spite of Romney’s loss, but that was his only highlight.

Christie associates were later accused of closing a major traffic bridge for political payback. Questions about the management of the super storm aftermath as well as disastrous cities like Camden, Newark, and Atlantic City would dog his second term.  The Governor would then attempt a flop of a 2016 presidential bid, only to become an embarrassing Trump handmaid with not so much as a cabinet post to show for it in the end.

Perhaps Governor Christie’s worst moment of all came during this year’s Fourth of July holiday week.  A budget battle raged in Trenton and in response to the standoff the Governor ordered all state operated beaches closed.  Except to him and his family’s residence.  The public was rightly outraged.

Aerial photos of the Governor and his family frolicking on the closed public beach where the embarrassing, last shovels of dirt thrown on the political grave of the man I once personally begged to run for President of the United States.

The Governor of New Jersey was the biggest political let down of my relatively young life covering politics.  I was wrong about him in ways I could never see coming.  Not just about his politics, but about his character.  He presented himself as something outside the normal of arrogant, entrenched, out-of-touch politicians. He would go on to prove he was one of the most entrenched and arrogant of them all – to the bitter, embarrassing end.

Christie’s response to his beach party critics was a curt, “Well, I’m sorry they’re not the governor.”

On this, we agree, Governor.  You’re sorry.  And I’m embarrassed I once thought otherwise.

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