Mark Shields: Chris Christie channels Ralph Perk
History, just by what it selects to remember, can indeed be cruel.
Consider, for example, Republican Ralph Perk, who, during the 1970s in heavily Democratic Cleveland, was elected mayor three times. But what Mayor Perk is mostly remembered for was that day in 1972 when, while using a blowtorch to cut the steel ribbon to ceremonially open the convention of the American Society for Metals, he set his own hair on fire. (Yes, you can see it on YouTube.) Later that same year, Perk declined an invitation from the president to dinner at the White House because the date conflicted with his wife’s bowling night.
Personally, I shall always remember Perk for his inventive explanation for his loss in the 1974 U.S. Senate race, when Democrat John Glenn, while carrying all 88 of Ohio’s counties, would become the first candidate in the state’s history to win a contested election by more than 1 million votes. Everywhere he went in the closing weeks of the campaign, the mayor said voters would tell him that though they preferred him for the Senate, they were not going to vote for him. “We don’t want to lose you as our mayor,” he reported them as saying.
Fast-forward to May 2015. New Jersey’s Republican governor, Chris Christie, helped Fox News’ Megyn Kelly and her audience understand why 65 percent of Garden State voters, in the most recent Quinnipiac University poll, had said they do not think Christie would make a good president. Channeling Cleveland’s Ralph Perk, Christie explained that actually those voters want him to stay as governor. “A lot of those people in that 65 percent want me to stay,” he said. “And I’ve heard that from lots of people at town hall meetings: ‘Don’t leave to run for president, because we want you to stay.'”
Not that many of his constituents who allegedly want him to “stay” in Trenton are pleased with his performance. In that same Quinnipiac poll, just 38 percent of New Jersey voters approved of the way Christie is “handling his job as governor”; 56 percent — an all-time high — disapproved. The governor’s “we want you to stay” account is just about as credible as Chico Marx’s classic retort when his wife discovered him kissing a young showgirl: “I wasn’t kissing her. I was whispering in her mouth.”
It’s been barely two years — but now a political eternity — since Christie, with a sky-high job approval rating of 73 percent, was on his way to a smashing re-election and all but destined to be a national leader. As U.S. attorney, he had been the scourge of corrupt public officials, winning more than 100 convictions, including of county executives in both Hudson and Essex counties, a longtime mayor of Newark and the president of the New Jersey Senate. As governor, he was dominating the Democratic Legislature. By 2011, Henry Kissinger and an impressive roster of the country’s most prominent CEOs were trying to persuade Christie to run for the White House in 2012. Christie declined and instead decided to endorse Mitt Romney.
Now it’s 2015, and Chris Christie painfully is learning what other might-have-beens have learned over the years: In presidential politics, if you’re lucky, you get one shot at the brass ring. And if you pass it up, that’s it. You find yourself explaining on television — while listeners, embarrassed for you, look away — that a lot of the 65 percent of people who disapprove of the job you’re doing want you to stay in that job.