In which I review the first draft of Chris Christie’s political career.
Chris Christie, Republican governor of New Jersey, has found a way into the national spotlight after a mere 2 and a half years at the head of the state. Similar to how Texas journalists capitalized on the national interest sparked by abortive presidential candidate Rick Perry, it seems the high profile of Chris Christie has prompted two Garden State journalists, Bob Ingle and Michael Symons of Gannett’s New Jersey operation, to write a biography of the Republican governor.
Indeed, one should always be dubious of books that are written “too soon” after anything has happened, even more so when those books are written while something is happening. Books like this one and chronicle of the ’08 campaign Game Change occupy that interesting middle ground between history and journalism, with the latter often being written to soon to bring any clearer a perspective than the daily grind of the news cycle. That said, the book has been making the media rounds, and Chris Christie is a fascinating personality, so I picked it up.
The first thing you notice about the book, probably owing to the incomplete career of its subject, is the length, or lack thereof. At 274 pages of narrative content, the book is a quick read; I zipped through it in only a week. While one can’t expect something like The Power Broker when discussing someone barely halfway through their term as governor of a state, there are definitely issues that get a shorter treatment in this book than they should. But again, we come back to the idea of historical perspective; when time comes for the definitive biography, we’ll probably care less about his time on the Morris County Board of Chosen Freeholders, and more about something he did as governor or even in a higher office that hasn’t happened yet.
But taken as what it is, basically a super-extended newspaper or magazine profile of the governor, we do learn some interesting tidbits about Christie’s blue collar upbringing and how it shaped him—largely, I should point out, from himself or his immediate family. Indeed, it becomes clear as one reads the book that most of the “original” research for the book comes from interviewing those in Christie’s immediate circuit (the authors more or less admit this in their acknowledgements).The rest of the sourced quotes, notes and information is a hodgepodge of snips from the Star Ledger and other New Jersey newspapers, as well as a few TV appearances and radio pieces.
This is arguably adequate research, mind you, but it does lead to a bit of a narrative problem, namely that all of the really super awesome-cool things that Christie did in his various roles tend to be told from the perspective of either quotes from Christie himself, the governor’s confidants, or in the coauthors’ “Voice of God” type prose, while the thoughts of those who disagreed with him are rendered through secondhand phrasing and quotes usually sourced back to the sort of newspaper clips I noted earlier. If only for a more textured portrait, talking to some of the people who worked on, say the Corzine campaign in 2009, would largely correct for this problem. Instead, we see direct quotes from various players sourced to older newspaper articles, rather than the result of new interviews for the book.
While I’m on the subject of the narrative, another thing I noticed with the book are the coauthors’ selective conclusion drawing, by which I mean that there are some disputes they’ll discuss without even making much of any evaluative judgment, such as the section where they discuss claims that Christie was too close to News Corporation. The main story there was that of subsidiary News America purportedly hacking into the computers of a competitor and stealing clients, a supposed crime that occurred while Christie was NJ’s US Attorney.
The idea was that calls for investigation by the victimized company, Floorgraphics, went essentially unheeded by Christie’s office. Again, in the book, the story gets the “through the archives” treatment, but what also stuck out at me was that the authors don’t really try to draw any conclusions from the incident, in the way that a historian (or a journalist looking from a 20 year later lens) would probably have.
But then we see the writers adjudicating present day political disputes. Take their treatment of the issue of the Access to the Region’s Core (ARC) tunnel, which was to add train capacity into Manhattan—currently NJ Transit and Amtrak trains going from New Jersey into the city have to use a single tunnel in each direction. Christie cancelled the project in 2010, citing cost overruns. The writers characterize the plan as being a “dumb idea” and seem to buy Christie’s claim of cost overruns as rationale for cancelling the tunnel, despite reports challenging that assertion.
The writing in the book is middling at best. Some paragraphs have awkward parenthetical addendums tacked on, including one entire paragraph that is a parenthetical note. The sections where the coauthors quote their own previous articles or reference their own involvement in the political landscape (“Coauthor Michael Symons, writing in USA Today…”) also rubbed me the wrong way. Not that writers shouldn’t feel free to namecheck themselves in their own books, but the self quotations here seem like part of an attempt to inflate their influence in the NJ press corps in front of the national audience reading the book.
So, should you buy this book? Depends on how interested you are in the topic. Despite all of the problems I point out above, the reader does come away with some insight into Chris Christie’s upbringing and how that shaped him. Unfortunately, basically all of these insights come from him and his family. The information on Christie’s political career is there, but nothing that you wouldn’t get from reading a New Yorker type profile piece on him, except somewhat more detail. Buy the book if you must, but at a list price of $25.99 US, by the time the price is equal to the quality of the content, it’ll be out of date.