Damned by the company he keeps

Over decades of writing about politics, I've crossed paths with many candidates and office holders who impressed me, but few who blew me away.

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie has joined team Trump and often defends the Republican presidential hopeful. Picture: Getty Images

Chris Christie blew me away. This was 3 1/2 years ago, well before all the trouble. The New Jersey governor was addressing a group of education reformers. And he did what looks easy until you try it yourself: talked without notes, slogans, stammers or any other clumsiness for close to a half-hour. It was too specific a speech to be one that he’d pulled from memory; he was thinking on his feet, in shapely paragraphs. He radiated conviction. He oozed authority.

What in God’s name happened to him? To his potential? Yes, yes, I know: the George Washington Bridge happened. And the downgrade of New Jersey’s credit rating happened — again and again and again.

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But while those events explain his diminished political fortunes and failed presidential campaign, they didn’t force him into his current role as a prime defender of an indefensible man. I looked up two weeks ago and he was on CNN, peddling the brazen lie that Donald Trump hadn’t spent the last five years raising questions about President Barack Obama’s birthplace. He radiated insincerity. He oozed subservience.

The Trump campaign has shown me many things that I never thought I’d see and others that I’d never seen so clearly, including the readiness of power-hungry men to trade dignity for relevance and swap pride for a place at the table, even if the table is a despicable one.

Christie made that deal with shocking alacrity, apparently on the theory that by getting to the table first, he could snag the best seat. It was flawed thinking. Mike Pence was given the marquee assignment; Christie was subjected to repeated public humiliations, including an admonition by Trump to stay away from Oreos.

Rudy Giuliani made that deal, too, and Trump has been his ticket to a renewed and terrifying omnipresence. His expression — part sneer, part glare, all menace — turns small forest creatures to stone. At the sound of his voice, roses drop their petals.

He was railing last week about Bill Clinton’s sexual history, a kooky case for him, in particular, to prosecute. Back when he was the mayor of New York, he was no choirboy, and his wife then — No. 2 of three — learned in a famously cruel fashion that he’d be leaving her. He announced it at a news conference.

But then hypocrisy and irony aren’t words with much currency on Team Trump, which is crowded with men, starting with Trump himself, whose ugly track records with marriage don’t inhibit them from condemning the Clintons’ union and whose viciousness toward women doesn’t stop them from damning the Clintons as vicious toward women.

Over recent days, in a spectacularly ill-advised war of words with former Miss Universe Alicia Machado, he and his minions sought to discredit her by essentially calling her a tramp. Isn’t that precisely what they’re complaining that the Clintons and their minions did to Monica Lewinsky?

Giuliani’s gripes range far and wide: Obama doesn’t love America; Hillary Clinton is secretly on death’s door; Lester Holt displayed an awful prejudice against Trump at the first presidential debate.

It’s all wild hallucination, but he bellows nonetheless, because the cameras eat it up. In this wretched race there’s a leitmotif of cockamamie cameos from men who are stars no more. It’s amazing how alike some of the manservants clinging to Trump are: His campaign is like some Canyon Ranch for bullies needing revitalization.

And it’s amazing how far they’ve fallen. For a significant stretch of the 2008 election cycle, Giuliani was the favorite for the GOP presidential nomination, and not just any favorite. He was going to prove that a Northeastern Republican who flouted certain right-wing orthodoxies could travel a somewhat centrist path to the White House.

That mantle passed to Christie. Some Republicans tried to draw him into the 2012 presidential race, then anointed him as the 2016 front-runner — before the bridge fiasco, that is. He, like Giuliani, was hailed in some quarters as a choice more sensible than stringently ideological.

“Sensible” isn’t an adjective you associate with either man these days. Both sacrificed it to their orange overlord.

It’s the nature of politics to forge alliances of convenience — and to swallow some principles in the process. Plenty of people in Hillary Clinton’s inner and outer circles balk at her secretive ways and shudder at her compromises. To be with her, they’ve made compromises of their own.

But not on the scale of the ones made by Trump’s cabal. Not with the same price or risk.

If Trump fails, where does that leave Christie? He was once intent on proving the bipartisan breadth of his outlook and appeal, as his brief bromance with Obama demonstrated. He was “an exceptionally gifted and nuanced politician,” wrote my colleague Mark Leibovich in a 2014 profile of him.

But he will be known forevermore for his enabling of Trump, who has absolutely no nuance — and not much of a conscience, either. In a recent poll, fewer than 1 in 4 New Jersey residents viewed Christie favorably. That has something to do with the company he’s keeping.

He obviously felt that he had nowhere else to go, not if he wanted to stay on the political stage. New Jersey voters aren’t likely to elect him to anything ever again.

But there are other theaters in this life. He has options. What I initially saw in him wasn’t proof of good governance, but it was evidence of an undeniable intelligence and a remarkable magnetism. They could be put to uses so much nobler than what he’s doing now, which is the kind of charade that leaves so many Americans so cynical and sour.