Wednesday, April 16, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

The Pulse: A second look at Christie turndown

Talk radio host and Inquirer columnist Michael Smerconish (right) thinks he might be getting a cold shoulder from Gov. Chris Christie might be over a column about using a state helicopter to attend his son´s baseball games.
Talk radio host and Inquirer columnist Michael Smerconish (right) thinks he might be getting a cold shoulder from Gov. Chris Christie might be over a column about using a state helicopter to attend his son's baseball games.

Bridgegate has many reexamining their past dealings with the Christie administration, looking for signs of political retribution.

Hoboken Mayor Dawn Zimmer claims that two senior administration officials told her that Sandy relief was dependent upon her support for a redevelopment project favored by the governor. Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop has asserted that offers of assistance by Christie and his administration ended when he refused to endorse the governor's reelection bid. Even Olympian Carl Lewis claims Christie tried to "intimidate" him. Christie has denied these charges.

Until these allegations, I would never have suspected that he'd kept score with Inquirer columns. Now I have my suspicions. Here's why:

Last spring, Philadelphia Magazine editor Tom McGrath invited me to write a cover story about Christie for the July issue. When McGrath added that the magazine would invite Christie to sit for the photograph while I interviewed him, I agreed. I took Christie's participation for granted. I'd interviewed him a half-dozen times, and had often spoken and written about him in a complimentary manner. Plus, this cover story would reach South Jersey in the midst of his reelection. No-brainer, right?

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  • His staff was initially noncommittal. When I saw Christie at the White House Correspondents Dinner on April 27, with my cover story deadline a month away, I approached the governor and reiterated the magazine's offer. He said it was being considered. His words were pleasant, but his demeanor was cool. Soon thereafter, his office said no. They cited scheduling conflicts, even though he could have picked the date and time. I proceeded to write a nearly 4,000-word essay looking at Christie's future that was neither valentine nor cheap shot. Christie was indeed on the cover featuring a photo for which he did not pose. The overwhelming reaction I received to the piece was that it was fair.

    Now I think I've figured out why he wouldn't cooperate. On June 5, 2011, a column of mine ran here under the headline "Can you imagine how Christie's son feels?" The focus was his use of a state helicopter to attend his son's baseball games. The column wasn't mean-spirited. I wrote it from a dad's point of view, reflecting on how my sons (then in fourth, seventh, and ninth grades) had complained about the vehicle in which I'd picked them up after school. I wrote:

    "It was no surprise to me that Chris Christie took heat for using a state helicopter to attend his son's baseball game, but I'm not thinking of the wrath of New Jersey taxpayers. If his house is anything like mine, he has bigger problems on the home front for the poor decision he made."

    I explained that my kids had complained when I'd picked them up in a sedan (too fancy) and in a pickup truck (too cowboy), and that kids at that age are sensitive to their peers' perceptions.

    That piece was the most negative thing I've ever offered about Christie, but now I think it was a deal-breaker for him, which is a shame. Time and again I've said that Christie is the GOP's best hope to center itself, something I think is in the best interest of both the party and the nation. Just this month, Gallup reported that 42 percent of Americans regard themselves as independents, the highest ever recorded. Before Bridgegate, I've often said Christie is best positioned to give voice to that constituency.

    Our first conversations came on radio a few years before he ran for governor. In his 2009 campaign against Gov. Jon Corzine, I was appalled that Corzine was running video of Christie in campaign ads at half-speed to accentuate his weight. I said so on radio, TV, and in a Philadelphia Daily News column. I also wrote a lighthearted column just before Election Day concerning Christie attending his 122d Bruce Springsteen show despite the rigors of the campaign, a subject we'd chatted about on air. My complimentary commentary continued after his election.

    Sometimes I got things wrong. On June 26, 2011, I wrote that Christie should run for president, on the theory that he might never be such a hot political property again and that his reelection in 2013 was far from a certainty. ("Christie's personality guarantees that there will be plenty of opportunity for him to both score and lose political favor.") At the end of 2011, I included him in headlines I "hoped for in 2012," namely, that he'd be Mitt Romney's No. 2. On April 15, 2012, I suggested that Romney would lose to Barack Obama and Christie could get nominated in 2016 when the "usual suspects" ("Rick Santorum. Marco Rubio. Paul Ryan. John Thune. Maybe Sarah Palin.") divided the conservative vote. ("Who will benefit? Anyone with less than a doctrinaire view of the world.")

    But after the helicopter column, he never again appeared on my program, despite my expanded radio platform that would have suited his national interests. I've had my producer re-create all of the exchanges with his office. Pre-helicopter, the staff was quick to respond and always courteous ("We'd like to get the governor back on with Michael once we start doing radio"). Post-helicopter, only one of many invitations got a reply ("Will be in touch about the next time we can get some time for the governor"). It was a noticeable change.

    That the governor wanted to run up the score in the November general election against Democratic opponent Barbara Buono was evident in his willingness to spend state money to schedule the special election for a U.S. senator, which Corey Booker won, in October, when Christie wouldn't be on the ballot. He wanted to win big - so why not pose for a magazine that reaches half his state?

    Perhaps for having once suggested he'd embarrassed his son - as I had done to my own three - I'd been tossed under the bridge, so to speak.

     


    Michael Smerconish can be heard from 9 a.m. to noon on Sirius XM's POTUS Channel 124.

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