PORT MONMOUTH, N.J. -- There’s nothing more amusing than a bully forced to be on his best behavior.
Chris Christie may be cutting back on his butter, but it wouldn’t melt in his mouth at a town hall here Thursday.
For the first time since his revving ambition stalled in a traffic jam, he returned to the forum that helped vault him to the head of the pack.
The New Jersey governor, depicted in The New Republic as Tony Soprano in his underwear getting his paper from the driveway, toned down his tough-guy Jersey act.
The fist-pumping and finger-jabbing were gone at his 110th town hall. As were the swagger, flashes of temper and glossy self-promotional videos. The chastened governor didn’t call anyone a “jerk,” an “idiot” or “stupid.” He even let one guy grab back the microphone that he had confiscated when the question went on too long.
Mr. Christie pitched his voice in a warm, helpful tone and, in an instamacy Instagram moment, took a knee to high-five a 3-year-old named Nicole Mariano who keened that Sandy broke her house.
He stayed dispassionate even on the most passionate topic. When a military veteran named Joe Williams urged him to destroy his Springsteen CDs — given the Boss’ tart parody with Jimmy Fallon of Mr. Christie’s bridge woes — the governor smiled and said he had the rocker on his iPhone.
Noting that he had been to 132 Springsteen concerts, he said rather wistfully, “Hey, listen, I don’t do drugs. I don’t drink. This is it for me, OK? It’s all I got. I still live in hope that someday, even as he gets older and older, he’s gonna wake up and go like, ‘Yeah, he’s all right. He’s a good guy. It’s all right. We can be friends.’ ”
The governor’s exit music was Mr. Springsteen’s “We Take Care of Our Own.”
I tend to agree with Bill Maher that Mr. Christie is “350 pounds of toast,” and that he should have run for president in 2012 when he had “that new candidate smell” because “the longer you stay in the more likely some bad thing will stick to you.”
Many Republicans on Capitol Hill, already fed up with Mr. Christie’s grandstanding on Sandy and his election-eve embrace of President Barack Obama, are casting about for a different presidential contender. The newly constrained Mr. Christie is taking a pass on dinner at the White House on Sunday, the better to avoid another photo op with the president.
Americans are so disgusted by political polarization that the minute Mr. Christie hugged Mr. Obama, he seemed like a white knight.
But in The New Republic, Alec MacGillis argues that the image of Mr. Christie as an independent bull in a china shop was never accurate. Mr. MacGillis’ reporting shows that Mr. Christie worked within the state’s political machinery at the same time as he was setting himself against it — that his strategy all along was to use his power as a corruption-busting prosecutor to bring down many Democratic officials, even as he cultivated bonds with the Democratic bosses left standing, with their influence enhanced.
As long as there’s no smoking traffic cone, there’s always the possibility that Mr. Christie can muster enough of the old bonhomie and bombast to clamber back to a rarefied perch as a presidential front-runner.
His millionaire pals are sticking to him for the moment, and he can keep his new position as chairman of the Republican Governors Association as long as he continues to rake in the dough for the group, no matter how low-key he gets.
To start his comeback, Mr. Christie chose a safely red pocket nestled on Sandy Hook Bay in this blue state.
And the Jersey residents obliged over the nearly two-hour session by not taking “the governor of New Jersey out for a walk,” as Mr. Christie calls being confrontational. Questioners stayed mostly on Sandy recovery, tossing out some compliments, and never once directly mentioned the pesky matter of the vindictive lane closures and vivisection of staff.
If you ignored Elizabeth Brady, a Rutgers student and intern for the Monmouth County Democrats, who was outside holding a sign that read “Bruce Springsteen hates you!” and just surveyed the crowd lost in their own issues in the VFW hall, it reminded you of Iowa. And that felt like the point of the exercise, as all the national press swarmed in to see if Mr. Christie could escape the house falling on him and resume skipping down the yellow brick road to Iowa.
The governor was a beneficiary of America’s desperate hunger for genuine leadership. You can blame Mr. Obama for the Christie tulip craze. The president has been so wan, he confused people into thinking that bluster was clarity. In a climate with no leadership, the bully looks like a man. If you’ve only been drinking water, Red Bull tastes like whiskey.
Mr. Obama’s ethereal insipidity made Mr. Christie’s meaty pugilism attractive; Mr. Obama’s insistence on the cerebral made voters long for the visceral, even the gracelessly visceral.
George W. Bush was the Decider who engaged in thoughtless action. So America veered toward Mr. Obama, who engaged in thoughtful inaction. Then they careered toward Mr. Christie, another practitioner of thoughtless action.
When all you have is leading from behind, there’s a place in your heart for in-your-face.
Maureen Dowd is a syndicated columnist for The New York Times.