Viewpoints

Ruben Navarrette: Chris Christie is who he is

SAN DIEGO – What if it turns out the media are wrong about Chris Christie? Where does the New Jersey governor go to set the record straight?

That’s right. There is no such place. And once the media stick a label on you, it doesn’t come off easily.

The dominant narrative pushed by most outlets is that Christie is a loudmouth bully who delights in lashing out at reporters and citizens at town hall meetings. He is usually direct, we are told, and sometimes downright mean.

This seems to have been how Christie came across to Cheryl Meyer, a 45-year-old kindergarten teacher who recently scolded him at a town hall forum in Old Bridge, New Jersey. After Christie finished his remarks, Meyer told the governor that she had trouble explaining to her students why it was fine for the man who holds the state’s highest office to use words like “shut up” and “idiot” when they can’t.

The potential 2016 GOP presidential candidate politely thanked Meyer for her question and acknowledged that there were times in the past when he could have used different words. He said he is “trying to get better every day.” Still, he also claimed that this kind of language was part of who he is and insisted that he would never be some “vanilla” politician who just tells people what they want to hear.

“I think we’ve had too much of people in public life pretending to be something,” the governor said.

Indeed. That kind of phoniness is probably one of the top six things that Americans hate about politicians. The others are lying, flip-flopping, ducking tough issues, talking but not saying anything, and putting their interests ahead of voters.

But all is not lost for Christie when it comes to relating to people. A recent visit to New Hampshire showed something that few political observers saw coming: Far from being a liability, when used correctly, Christie’s mouth can be a valuable asset.

In the city of Londonderry, Christie launched what he called his “Tell It Like It Is” tour with another town hall meeting. It could have gone badly. Just one day earlier, Christie had jumped into the contentious debate over entitlement reform by suggesting that the retirement age be raised to 69. Seniors might not like that, and they aren’t shy in expressing their views about efforts to tinker with Social Security. Yet Christie waded in.

He loosened up the crowd by taking a shot at Hillary Clinton. Christie noted that she plans to raise $2.5 billion for her presidential campaign “and then get the corrupting money out of politics.” The crowd roared with laughter.

This is a forum that Christie has mastered. He told the gathering in Londonderry that, since taking office in New Jersey, he has held about 130 town halls throughout the Garden State.

The governor earned applause for refusing to go along with an audience member’s request to support a conscientious exemption from vaccinations. Instead, he said, he would “err on the side of protecting public health through vaccine unless that vaccine has proven to be harmful to the public.”

But where Christie hit it out of the park was when he opened up and talked about his late mother, who passed away 11 years ago from lung cancer. He credits his mom for his straight-talking ways, and for being a tremendous influence in his life.

“As I enter into a national conversation, I enter into it with those traits: someone who’s willing to speak their mind, who’s not going to [make you] wait for deathbed confessions – you’re gonna hear it now,” he said.

Christie said that, at one point, his mother gave him some great advice that continues to serve him well to this day: “Be yourself because then tomorrow you don’t have to try to remember who you pretended to be yesterday.”

Finally, as for being outspoken and a little rough around the edges, he told the crowd, “That’s who I am and that’s who I will always be because we are always part of our childhood and our parents.”

That sounds honest and authentic, two words that you don’t often hear used to describe politicians – especially when they’re out hunting for support and will say just about anything to get it.

Remember when Christie said that he’s trying to get better every day? It’s working. He’s getting better.

Ruben Navarrette’s email address is ruben@rubennavarrette.com.

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