MOVING THE CONES
"I worked the cones actually, Matt," he said. "Unbeknownst to everybody I was actually the guy out there. I was in overalls and a hat. . . . You really are not serious with that question."
I really was serious with that question.
Christopher J. Christie, the fifty-fifth governor of the state of New Jersey, loomed from behind a massive wooden podium in the ornate ceremonial meeting room of his office at the state capitol in Trenton. His predecessors lined the walls in oil paintings, gubernatorial ghosts that warned of mediocre political fortune. Just one governor of New Jersey had gone on to become president of the United States: Woodrow Wilson. That was in 1913, exactly one hundred years ago.
Christie was poised to recapture the White House for New Jersey. He had just won a landslide reelection as a Republican in one of the most Democratic states in the country. He had come to personify New Jersey not just in the political sphere but also as a national cultural figure, as likely to pop up on E! as on FOX News. And he was beating all the other Republicans in the polls for the next presidential election in 2016—and even tied with Democrat Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic candidate. Years of buzz about his political future had now turned into a full-on clarion call to every pragmatic Republican through the land: Christie had arrived to save the GOP. Exit polls showed that he knew how to win over independents, women, and the majority of Latinos.
Today was Christie's first press conference back at the Statehouse after his reelection win. He was cocky and combative, as always. So when Christie deflected my question, it was just the kind of mocking sarcasm we were all used to.
CHRISTIE'S PRESENCE, ALREADY physically large, was magnified by the high perch he took behind the podium, above the reporters who sat packed together, shoulder to shoulder, laptops running hot on our thighs, eye level not with Christie but rather with the state seal.
A disembodied horse head was pictured at the center of that seal. "Liberty and Prosperity," it read.
There was a fireplace behind the podium, but it was never lit. Plainclothes state troopers and top Christie staffers were stationed around the room like sentries, expressionless and seemingly wary of our existence. The room was cold, always, and the wifi was poor, usually.
Reporters shall raise their hands. Permission must be sought before a follow-up can be asked. Keep the questions short. And reading off a notepad, computer screen, or iPhone invites mockery.
With no applause, the governor busted through a tall wooden door next to the fireplace. "All right, all right," he began. "Good afternoon, everybody."
A half hour into that press conference, he called on me.
The scandal that I asked him about had been brewing for months. Something bizarre about access lanes from the little town of Fort Lee to the George Washington Bridge. Word was that the governor's people had closed the lanes to cause massive morning traffic jams for five consecutive days that gridlocked commuters, school buses, and ambulances. Apparently (and this sounded impossibly preposterous) the traffic jams were created to seek revenge on the Fort Lee mayor, who hadn't endorsed Christie's reelection.
This was December, and the lanes closed back in September. Christie's Democratic opponent in the election brought the incident up during a recent debate. She said it showed that Christie and his people were a bunch of bullies.
New Jersey seemed to like the bullying, from the time he instructed the media to "take the bat out" on a seventy-eight-year-old state senator (he meant it journalistically, he later explained) to the time he went after congressional Republicans for blocking billions of dollars in relief money for the biggest natural disaster in New Jersey history.
So when I asked him, "Governor, did you have anything to do with these lane closures in September outside the GW Bridge?" his "I worked the cones" made the crowd, his senior staffers—and maybe a few reporters—laugh.
This was not my first time getting Christie's sarcastic shiv—after all, I had been covering him for three years at this point—so I persisted. The governor likes to grapple, and challenging him sometimes draws out better answers, ekes out some more truth-telling. And I wasn't peddling some cuckoo conspiracy theory here—this bridge thing was now the subject of hearings in the state legislature. Documents were being sought. Articles had been written. This was, without question, a news story.
The governor didn't think so. He did not want to be talking about what I was asking him to talk about. He was going to shut this down right now, and he planned to never hear about it again.
Christie stood by the explanation that the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs the bridge, had already given: The lanes were closed for a traffic study. He went on to say that he was instructing the Port Authority to "review that entire policy" of having "three dedicated lanes" for Fort Lee. "Because I've sat in that traffic," he said, "before I was governor." He looked at me and winked. He no longer sat in traffic; for him, as governor, they shut down part of the Lincoln Tunnel to Manhattan.
"The fact that one town has three lanes dedicated to it? That kind of gets me sauced," he said. And then he attacked the Democratic legislators who had become the lead antagonists on the whole issue.
"I don't get involved in lane closures. I didn't work the cones, just so we're clear on that, that was sarcastic," he said, to laughter. The Democratic inquiries were just "politics," he said. "They're just looking for something, you know? And that's what they do."
Before he became governor, Christie was the U.S. Attorney for New Jersey—the chief federal prosecutor for the entire state, best known for winning corruption cases against 130 dirty politicians. He ran for governor as the anticorruption candidate, the one who was going to clean up the notoriously shady halls of the Statehouse in Trenton. That's what made the scandal—Bridgegate—so shocking. If his top aides conspired to punish enemies with a traffic jam, was the guy who had fought corruption so valiantly now in bed with the very kind of people he was supposed to protect us from?
Christie had proven to be Teflon to controversy. So there was little reason to imagine he wouldn't get past this bridge situation, either.
Yet the next question proved to be clairvoyant. It came from Michael Aron, reporter for NJTV and the dean of the Trenton political press corps.
"Governor, you're frequently described as the front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination," Aron said. "I wonder how comfortable a position that is three years ahead of an election. . . . How do you respond to that appellation"—front-runner—"in front of your name all the time?"
"It doesn't matter to me. It's meaningless. It's December 2013. . . . It will change any number of times between now and then."
It sure would.
I BEGAN COVERING Chris Christie in January 2011 for my newspaper, the Philadelphia Inquirer. My editor, Mike Topel, wanted a "body man" on Christie—someone who would follow him around the state and around the country, capturing every extraordinary moment and utterance for a blog and the newspaper. The governor was the most dynamic political figure in the region, Topel told me, and I would become the expert on him.
No, I told Topel. I wasn't interested.
Thing was, this should've been a dream job. I had always wanted to cover politics on a big stage—I was a political communication major at George Washington University, around the corner from the White House. For the next decade I covered local politics in New Jersey for three different newspapers, and I came to enjoy watchdogging school boards and telling stories about unusual personalities. I was briefly in Afghanistan, embedded with American troops, and when the Christie job opened up I was in the best beat I ever had—covering Camden, a city where politicians had repeatedly failed its people.
But Christie—Christie!—this guy kept making news. And so I took the job, moving my office to press row at the Statehouse in Trenton. On the Inquirer's website I created a blog with the mediocre but satisfyingly alliterative name "Christie Chronicles." Over the first few weeks on the beat I reported on Christie calling state workers "stupid," threatening to commit suicide if anyone asked him if he was running for president, and comparing New Jersey under his first year of leadership to the 1980 "Miracle On Ice" American hockey team. "Look around," he had said. "Much like that band of hard-charging, take-no-prisoners college kids did in Lake Placid thirty-one years ago, New Jersey is inspiring the nation."
Who in the world did this guy think he was? I was fascinated.
Months into the job, even though I had asked Christie questions at press conferences, I had yet to formally meet him. He worked downstairs and across the hall from my office in the Statehouse, but getting an audiencewith him required patience and persistence. One day in March, his spokesman, Michael Drewniak, stopped by press row.
"Do you want to meet the governor?" he asked. "I'm not guaranteeing anything."
We went downstairs, past several layers of state troopers, and into his outer office. We waited. Finally we got the nod to come in.
"Governor," I said, "nice to meet you." We shook hands. His are fleshy, and his grip is strong. Very strong. My hand hurt for a few minutes afterward.
Christie is five feet eleven inches tall and round in the middle—that's the first thing you notice. He fills out his suit—which is always dark, with a New Jersey–shaped American flag pin on the lapel. Under the suit is invariably a white cuff-linked shirt, monogrammed "CJC," and a colorful, conservative tie. His skin tone is Sicilian beige with a touch of red, prone to grayness when he's tired or under the weather. His nose slopes down like a short but steep double diamond to a bulbous end. He talks close to you, if you're both standing. He tilts his head slightly downward, and his bright blue eyes peer so intently at yours that it looks as if he is penetrating your soul and deciding it bores him.
But he also downshifts. Maybe you're sitting down together, as we were in his office that day in 2011. He leaned back in his chair, crossed his hands behind his head, and smiled, charmingly and casually. "So, how did you pull the short straw and have to start following me around?" he asked, with a self-deprecation I hadn't expected.
I told him that I was instructed to "cover him as if he was the president of the world." I wasn't sure what that meant, exactly, but he laughed.
"Well," he said, "we're going to do our best to keep you entertained."
He joked that he had been clicking on the Christie Chronicles one hundred times a day, and he acknowledged that he couldn't handle the comments under the online posts—"it's not good for the psyche."
Years later Christie recounted this moment in a speech at the annual Trenton Legislative Correspondents Club dinner. "He came in to see me. Sat down in my office with me. I said, 'Man, this is gonna be the crappiest job you've ever gotten in your entire life! We're gonna be boring, man, there's nothing you're going to have to cover.' Now Matt Katz is on TV more than I am!"
When I appeared as a guest on cable news shows, I was there only because everyone wanted to talk about the "potential presidential candidate"I covered. He was a politician approaching liftoff, and we were all watching to see where he went.
Christie watched me watching him. Sometimes, he'd privately let me know what he thought about my reporting, pontificating and live-tweeting. But almost all of our conversations took place in public, with an audience, which is an odd way to get to know someone. These interactions were usually respectful, sometimes funny, and fundamentally adversarial.
He read his own press, at least he did in the first term. One way he responded was by putting me in the "Penalty Box" without explanation for an unspecified period of time. "Sorry," a Christie source once texted me, "not allowed to talk to you right now."
Other times he reacted more directly. After a campaign event one day at a diner, Christie muttered to me as I walked by: "Come see me after." He did not look happy.
I went outside and waited under a steady rain by his pair of SUVs.
Christie bounded out of the diner. "Dan, put him in the car," the governor said to his personal aide, Dan Robles, who had traveled with him everywhere since the first campaign. Dan opened the door, and I got in the back. Dan stayed outside. Christie came around and sat in the passenger seat, next to a state police trooper who looked forward, and remained silent, for the next ten minutes. In one singular motion Christie turned around toward me and extended his index finger.
There were no formalities as the governor effectively communicated his problem with something I reported.
When I stepped out of the SUV ten minutes later, Dan was still standing there, in the rain. He was very wet when he took my place in the backseat.
FOR THE FIRST of two interviews the governor agreed to do for this book I met him at an expensive Midtown Manhattan restaurant in the dead of a weekday afternoon. During the interview my pen busted, spilling black ink on my hands. The governor didn't notice.
But he did. A few minutes later, as I questioned one of his stories—saying I hadn't found people to corroborate it—he came back with a quick jab. "Well of course they're not going to tell you!" he said. "C'mon, you've got ink all over your hands, they're not going to tell you anything! Amazing I'm still at the table after that performance."
Team Christie packaged that sharp-edged personality into digestible digital formats, distilling his gubernatorial id to build his brand for a future presidential campaign. Beginning with a viral video of an argument the first-year governor got into with an elementary school art teacher—thrilling, to some, to see an elected official put a union employee in her place—Christie became the first bona fide American YouTube politician. He had an unusual physical appearance and sound bites galore—a perfect man for this digital moment. Without YouTube, his closest advisers told me, Christie would have never become a "potential presidential candidate" as quickly as he did.
One of the first videos to go viral was in May 2010, at the start of his term, after Tom Moran, the editorial page editor at the state's largest paper, the Star-Ledger, asked Christie how he'd get anything done with such a "confrontational tone."
Christie went off, using a line that became his most famous put-down of a reporter: "Ya know, Tom? You must be the thinnest-skinned guy in America. You think that's confrontational, you should see me when I'm really pissed!" Christie said politicians were meant to argue—that was the point. "This is who I am," he told reporters. "Like it or not you guys are stuck with me for four years. And I'm going to say things directly. When you guys ask me questions I am going to answer them directly, straightly, bluntly. And nobody in New Jersey is gonna have to wonder where I am on an issue."
In reality Christie dodged when asked for reactions to hot-button national issues that he didn't want to talk about. And he often weaved when asked about possibly corrupt political allies. But Republicans nonetheless loved the "you must be the thinnest-skinned guy in America" shot against the media, with commentator Glenn Beck calling it "conservative porn."
"I never found him erotic before," Beck said, as orgasm sounds played on his radio show, "but now all of a sudden . . ."
Bill Palatucci, Christie's longest-serving political confidant, told me that for months afterward, as the men traveled the country in Christie's new role as campaigner for GOP candidates, folks repeated those words to him. You must be the thinnest-skinned guy in America. Through that one line, they felt "like they got to know this guy and got to understand him," Palatucci said.
In the beginning of his term, Christie communications director Maria Comella couldn't get the governor on Meet the Press. YouTube fixed that. Christie doubled his communications staff—reaching a taxpayer-fundedpayroll of about $1.4 million a year—so staffers could be dispatched to every public event armed with video cameras, boom mics, and laptops, cutting and clipping Christie's appearances into mini-movies emailed out to the world before reporters could even file their stories to their editors.
The videos attracted the attention of news shows, which invited Christie on set in New York, where he'd sit for interviews that created more YouTube moments. Comella picked her spots, using TV for when her boss had a message to sell, like a big budget initiative, and preferring to bunch the appearances into single mornings—four interviews on four networks in fewer than four hours had the potential to dominate a single news cycle. He'd cross the tunnel into Manhattan the night before, get a room at a hotel in Midtown so he could sleep a little extra, and then get up while it was still dark to head to the green rooms. The exercise was critical to preparing to be a presidential candidate.
Comella soon brought on a digital director, Lauren Fritts. They commuted together every day from their apartments in Manhattan—ninety minutes to Trenton and ninety minutes back, tucked in a Toyota Prius talking shop and choreographing Christie. The videos they produced were ostensibly about promoting specific issues, but they were also about promoting the man, capturing the eyes of network producers and the ears of conservative talk radio hosts.
Before the governor's 2012 budget address they created a mock movie trailer that began in black-and-white on Route 295 outside Trenton. It's a stormy day, and the music is ominous.
Then Christie emerges from the SUV at the Statehouse and wind chimes play in the score, signaling optimism. He is at work—in a cabinet meeting, shaking hands at a construction site, speaking at a farm, walking the boardwalk, saluting a soldier. "Sometimes you may look at me and think I'm spoiling for a fight," he says. "Not all the time, but I'll tell you this: I'm going to fight for the things that are worth fighting for . . . ladies and gentlemen, this is it. What you see is what you get."
He wasn't a governor. He was The Governor. That's how every one of his 2013 reelection campaign commercials ended: "Chris Christie, The Governor." They did a poll in Connecticut once. "Who's the Connecticut governor?" they asked. "Chris Christie," most said. The aura from New Jersey was beginning to seep into America.
The videos alone didn't do the trick. Distribution was key. Christie's office maintained a contact list of people who received the videos every day.I thought the list, created by government employees, should be public information. Christie's lawyers disagreed.
"You guys want everything," Christie told us once. "You're not entitled to everything."
When I left the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2013 and moved over to WNYC, the National Public Radio member station, we sued for the YouTube press list. We got it, four and a half years after the initial request. It contained email addresses for twenty-five hundred journalists and TV producers, broken into tiers for national columnists, Sunday show producers, Spanish language TV, and more. At eighty-eight contacts, FOX News was most represented. For when something had to get out there quickly, there was a "push list" of reporters active on Twitter, like me. Comedy Central's The Daily Show was on the list, as was the conservative opposition research group America Rising.
Controlling the message. That's what carefully creating this list—and keeping it from me—was all about.
The culture of secrecy was enforced across all state agencies. Overtime costs for state troopers were kept under wraps. Budgetary information readily available in prior administrations was no longer released. The names of those who flew on Christie's helicopter, visited the governor's mansion, and attended Giants and Jets games in the gubernatorial suite were all state secrets. The amount it cost taxpayers to subsidize his political travels around the country could never be fully accounted for because the administration refused to release complete records, citing security reasons.
It wasn't supposed to be like this. Less than six minutes into his inaugural address, Christie's very first policy promise was this: "Today a new era of accountability and transparency is here."
Christie had other priorities. Comella mandated her staff reach annual goals on increasing the governor's Twitter followers and Facebook likes. My tweets about Christie were flagged by a $55,000-a-year "research analyst" in the governor's office and emailed to outside political advisers. I got more complaints from Christie's people over my quickly scribed tweets than from the long stories in the newspaper or on the radio that I had worked on for weeks. Team Christie knew that quickly disseminating information it liked—and quietly stifling information it didn't—was the name of the political communication game, now and always.
SOON ENOUGH CHRISTIE got famous. He and his wife, Mary Pat, were going on double dates with the likes of Mr. and Mrs. Howard Stern and Mr. and Mrs. Matt Lauer. At the annual White House Correspondents' Dinner, Christie was lampooned more than any other governor but then partied until the wee hours with George Clooney. There he was, "Dad dancing" on stage with Jimmy Fallon, and at a party in the Hamptons, gyrating on the dance floor with actor Jamie Foxx.
Christie crashed at Jon Bon Jovi's pad that night in the Hamptons. He also had sleepovers at Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's house.
"I've never had trouble making friends, of any kind, in my life," Christie told me. For twenty years, Christie organized his class's high school reunions. "For people who are important to me in my life, I pay attention to them," he said. "Now that I'm a celebrity, celebrities are no different than anyone else."
He spends so much time at friendships that it bothered his wife, Mary Pat. "But I'm better at it than she is," he told me. "I think that's what really frustrates her. I have a lot more friends than she does."
Christie is always on his iPhone with one friend or another. "So when Bono got in his accident, I texted him right away, 'How are you doing, are you doing okay? You need anything?'?" he said. "But if my friend Bill Giuliano from high school had gotten into an accident, I would've done the same thing."
Christie and U2 front man Bono met in 2011, in the kingdom of Jordan, where they partied with Jordanian king Abdullah II. Christie met Abdullah through New York mayor Michael Bloomberg at a men-only dinner party Bloomberg threw in 2010, attended by the likes of former British prime minister Tony Blair and the Rolling Stones' Mick Jagger. "It was pretty amazing," Christie said.
Abdullah and Christie soon realized that they each had four children, two girls and two boys, all about the same age. "So we started talking about kids, and this and that," Christie said, and thereafter he got a note from Abdullah inviting the Christies to Jordan. So in 2012, on the back end of a government trip to Israel, the whole Christie family was picked up by the Jordanian army and flown to the king's home at the Red Sea, across from Israel and Egypt and next door to Saudi Arabia. They were taken to the five-star Kempinski Hotel in Aqaba—the royal family picked up the tab—and that night, a dinner was thrown for the Christies. Then Bono came by.
The Christies, the Abdullahs, and Bono spent the weekend together. The next day they barbecued by the Red Sea at the royal pool as all the kids jet-skied and maneuvered Segways around the property. At night, they flew out to Wadi Rum, the geological spectacle where much of Lawrence of Arabia was filmed, and the king threw a party as the kids rode ATVs through the desert.
At some point, Bono and Christie shared the mic. They dueted "Hotel California." In the desert. In front of the king. When Christie told me about this moment, there was a glimmer in his eye, like: Can you believe how awesome my life is?
"He needs to be in the action all the time," one longtime intimate told me. "He's addicted to the attention."
Christie had become the American Governor—personifying a media-focused, celebrity-obsessed, blunt-talking U.S. of A. This Christie phenomenon was no longer about the state that had created him.
On the last morning of his visit to Jordan, the king himself drove Christie to the helicopters, where he flew to a private jet—paid for by Sheldon Adelson, the casino magnate and pro-Israel GOP kingmaker. A few years later Christie would draw front-page scrutiny for the conflicts of interest inherent in his journey to the desert, but that was part of the deal with Christie. He had long enjoyed perks—and long gotten into trouble for them.
As U.S. Attorney, the federal Office of the Inspector General found that he spent more money on travel than any of his colleagues, exceeding the maximum government rate twenty-three times.
"I try to squeeze all the juice out of the orange that I can," he once said.