Two obtuse birds of a feather

Jules witcover

WASHINGTON — While Donald Trump was basking in the patriotic sunshine of Independence Day at the White House, his onetime pet Republican governor, Chris Christie of New Jersey, was doing his basking on the beachfront property of his state-owned summer house on the Jersey Shore.

The problem politically for Christie was he was doing so with family and friends within the state’s Island Beach State Park, which at the time was closed to the public as part of a statewide budgetary shutdown. NJ.com, the website associated with the state’s largest daily newspaper, the Newark Star-Ledger, got wind of the fact and swooped down with aerial photos of Christie’s group on the otherwise barren beachfront, to the governor’s predictable outrage.

The whole business might have been small potatoes if it weren’t magnified by Christie’s reputation as an in-your-face political bully, based in large part on the infamous “Bridgegate” scandal already on his rap sheet.

That incident was the intentional 2013 closing of access lanes from the George Washington Bridge over the Hudson River connecting New York and New Jersey. The stunt was intended to punish Mayor Mark Sokolich of Fort Lee, N.J., who had declined to endorse Christie for re-election. Christie testified the closings were the idea of staff aides, and that he had no knowledge or involvement, but the scandal burnished his bully image nonetheless. Two aides were convicted in the case.

The photos of Christie on the beach immediately had national legs by virtue of the governor’s on-again, off-again relationship with the new president, with whom he shares a penchant for brash egocentrism and self-aggrandizement.

Christie, an early Donald Trump rival for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination, performed yeoman political service for the eventual winner by reducing Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida to a laughingstock in debate, by noting his memorized debate remarks, after which Trump repeatedly referred to him as “Little Marco.”

As other GOP nomination rivals dropped like flies in the face of Trump’s withering, brassy style, Christie was the first to climb on the Trump bandwagon, amid speculation that he was angling to be his running mate, and making himself the likely frontrunner to get there. But it seemed that the Bridgegate scandal was a bridge too far for Trump despite Christie’s denial. The bland Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana eventually got the job.

Nevertheless, Christie remained in relative good graces with Trump and his team, to the point that after the election he was placed in charge of the transition, to manage the preparation for the business tycoon’s takeover of the world’s most important political job.

But as Trump’s trust shifted to close family members and to the nationalist-populist media guru Stephen Bannon, Christie was dumped from the transition leadership. That left him to deal with his home state and its contentious legislature for his final gubernatorial term.

There is some irony in this latest turn of events, in that the Jersey Shore has been a major player in Christie’s stormy political career. After the devastation it suffered in Hurricane Sandy in 2012, his rotund figure was frequently seen on the popular Central and South Jersey shoreline, rallying local residents and pledging state aid for its recovery. He even undertook a weight reduction campaign amid speculation of a future in national politics.

Near the close of the presidential campaign between Democratic President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney, Christie ruffled Republican feathers by extensively lauding Obama for his recovery aid in a much-televised visit to the Jersey Shore.

Now, as Trump struggles to cope with the growing pains of a new national administration without the benefit of experience on a field of play unfamiliar to him, his old bully buddy in the Garden State has his own hands full getting across the finish line there. His once bright political future has dimmed, in part by the same obtuse insensitivity to appearances that now almost daily also plagues his former best political friend in the White House.

Editor’s note: Jules Witcover’s latest book is “The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power,” published by Smithsonian Books. You can respond to this column at juleswitcover@comcast.net.