Chris Christie might be the closest thing American politics has to Orson Welles. No, that’s not a reference to size — something that is talked about far too much in Christie’s case. Rather, the Republican governor’s meteoric rise to date looks a lot like the Hollywood legend’s. Christie’s runaway victory last week in a heavily Democratic state only extends his upward trajectory. As a brash thirty-something he took down party cronies in a primary fight; as a 40-year-old US attorney he prosecuted dozens of public officials for corruption. Now, basking in the glow of his landslide reelection, the question lingers, “What’s next?”
Welles faced the same question after making “Citizen Kane” before turning 30, and his answer never fully satisfied his admirers or critics. He’d set the bar pretty high. And although he wrote, directed, and starred in a series of noteworthy films, he never won another Oscar. Regrettably, the last 25 years of his career are mostly remembered for talk-show appearances, small cameo roles, and commercials — like the one where he famously declared that Paul Masson would “sell no wine before its time.”
As for Christie, there’s no sign that he’s peaked. For most politicians, eight years in a statehouse corner office would be the capstone to a successful career. But Christie’s powerful presence, unconventional style, and electoral success are a magnet for intensified scrutiny and rising expectations.
Much to his credit, Christie — like Welles — has never worried much about how he’s viewed by others. Blunt run-ins with protesters, unions, and most recently an activist teacher have only reinforced that view. The downside of that attitude is a diva’s reputation. Welles excoriated Hollywood’s studio system, frequently ran over budget, and preferred Europe to America. Christie’s biggest national role to date was at last year’s Republican National Convention. His keynote speech ran long on time and short on praise for the nominee. Even fans viewed it as a bit self-indulgent. Then again, a similar act got Bill Clinton started in national politics back in 1988.
A newly released book on the 2012 campaign — during which Christie was a short-list vice presidential contender — will only enhance this perception. Vetting documents faulted him for his tardiness, overbearing staff, and penchant for “expensive hotels.” In an interview with journalist Jake Tapper, Christie casually shrugged off the substance of the leaked file, but emphasized his personal disappointment at the breach of trust — a display of ease and candor that voters find appealing.
Indeed, Christie viscerally understands something about voters that eludes many elected officials and almost everybody who writes about politics: There is no checklist. Voters don’t walk into the voting booth comparing candidates down a list of issues side-by-side; they never have. They care about trust, truth, and leadership, the very qualities that Christie has successfully demonstrated and promoted from his earliest days in politics.
Partisan critics dismiss all of this as a triumph of style over policy. It’s a classic sour-grapes reaction, and it misses the real lesson here: Leadership skills matter. Voters look for candor, presence of mind, and decisiveness precisely because we can’t predict which issues will challenge us in the future. We want to know these vital qualities can be called upon when those moments of genuine uncertainty reveal themselves.
For their part, media pundits will continue to focus most on criticism of Christie from within the Republican Party. But history suggests Christie can take the heat. Republicans have always insisted on a trial-by-fire path to the presidential nomination. Some of the most visceral criticism of Ronald Reagan came from party stalwarts as he battled through the early primaries in 1980.
And as Reagan knew like no one else, timing can be everything in both Hollywood and politics. Christie’s first gubernatorial victory, just a year after the rout of 2008, looked to Republicans like an oasis in the desert and foreshadowed the party’s dramatic turnaround in 2010. His triumph last week gave everyone something to talk about. More significantly, it gives him three full years to govern in the run-up to the presidential elections in 2016.
Life is about much more than winning elections or Academy Awards, but no one wants to be remembered for failing to reach their potential. Christie has already reshaped New Jersey’s political landscape and restored its reputation. Surely there’s more to his next act than David Letterman and Doritos ads.John E. Sununu, a former Republican senator from New Hampshire, writes regularly for the Globe.
For the record: An earlier version of this piece misidentified the wine company whose commercials featured Orson Welles.