And in the process turns an old ally into a nobody again
February 6, 2014 12:00 AM
High school never ends.
Chris Christie has given us proof of that, as though we needed it.
Still, anyone who clings to high school the way the 51-year-old governor of New Jersey does makes me nervous.
In his hilariously lame attempt to demonize his old schoolmate and hand-picked point man at the Port Authority, David Wildstein, by dredging up stuff Mr. Wildstein did as a teenager 35 years ago at Livingston High, Mr. Christie has confirmed the biographical, metaphysical and psychological primacy of high school.
On Saturday, Politico published some leaked talking points from Mr. Christie’s office with these nyah-nyah complaints about Mr. Wildstein: “As a 16-year-old kid, he sued over a local school board election.” And, “He was publicly accused by his high school social studies teacher of deceptive behavior.”
As Shawn Boburg of The Record of Bergen County has reported, Mr. Wildstein unsuccessfully sued at 16 to get on the ballot for the county Republican committee and then ran for the local school board at 17, even though he was below the legal age requirement. His social studies teacher charged Mr. Wildstein with tricking him into signing an endorsement letter for that race.
Wait, this is supposed to be good for Mr. Christie? That he gave a $150,000-a-year job to a guy he knew was a wayward, duplicitous teen?
The Washington Post reported this week that Mr. Christie wasn’t always so scornful of silly adolescent litigation. When Mr. Christie was a senior, he and his family considered suing to stop a transfer student from co-opting his role as catcher — even if it meant that the team, which went on to win the state championship, would have to forfeit the spring season. But he thought better of it.
The Record compared the yearbook profiles of Mr. Christie with the not-so-wild Mr. Wildstein: “Christie, a year younger, was a perennial class president and baseball player who wrote in his senior yearbook in 1980 about high school sweethearts and going to concerts. There are no remembrances, school clubs or sports teams next to Wildstein’s 1979 senior picture. The space is blank.”
It’s risible but sort of alarming that, decades later, Mr. Christie is boasting that he was more of a big shot than Mr. Wildstein in high school, putting down the guy he created a job for and going out of his way to say they were not even friends back when they were both connected to the Livingston Lancers — Mr. Christie as an ebullient, trim catcher; Mr. Wildstein as a quiet, bespectacled statistician.
“Well, let me just clear something up, OK, about my childhood friend David Wildstein,” Mr. Christie said at his marathon press conference in January, a month after Mr. Wildstein had fallen on his sword for the governor. “It is true that I met David in 1977 in high school. He’s a year older than me. David and I were not friends in high school. We were not even acquaintances in high school.”
Bristling with narcissism and punitive aggression, he drove his point home: “We didn’t travel in the same circles in high school. You know, I was the class president and athlete. I don’t know what David was doing during that period of time.”
This display makes you think that Mr. Christie must have liked lording it over peons even back then, an uncomfortable echo of his office contemptuously impressing its will on the mayor of Fort Lee.
Watching Mr. Christie throw Mr. Wildstein off the sled and then publicly belittle him, it’s easy to imagine the deep gratification, deferred by decades, that Mr. Wildstein must have experienced turning on Mr. Christie.
It has become a cliche to portray candidates in their “Breakfast Club” cliques. But the funny thing about Mr. Christie’s desperate attempt to mine the past to save his once shiny future is that it’s not a metaphor.
It isn’t that Trenton politics are like high school. They are actually about high school. Livingston, I presume, is the Hotel California for Mr. Christie. He can never leave.
High school looks like the beginning of adulthood and feels like it, but it isn’t adulthood. It’s some kind of dress rehearsal. It’s the first experience of a grown-up emotional and physical life, where you feel the rush of your powers and your vulnerability. Every reversal is gigantic. It’s a perfect storm of potency and ignorance, power and inexperience.
High school is the place where people get wounded — somebody else does better, an endless source of injuries, slights and offenses. Everyone comes out of high school needing vindication or revenge or compensation. It’s all about somebody else getting the pretty girl or the cute guy or the higher grade or the position on the sports team. Or the opposite: the Biffs, the quarterbacks who look back and realize they can never be that again.
The two kinds of people who never let go are the injured and the injurers, people who got slammed and the prom kings and queen bees who swanned at the top only in their teens. In a way, you could define adulthood as a passage into a time when you realize high school no longer matters.
Mr. Christie’s senior yearbook quote was “Great Hopes make Great Men.” He’s now learned another lesson: Great Heaps of vengeful traffic cones break the Hopes of Men who would be Great.
Maureen Dowd is a syndicated columnist for The New York Times.