By Frank Bruni
Mr. Bruni is a contributing Opinion writer who was on the staff of The Times for more than 25 years.
Chris Christie made a complete fool of himself back in 2016, fan-dancing obsequiously around Donald Trump, angling for a crucial role in his administration, nattering on about their friendship, pretending or possibly even convincing himself that Trump could restrain his ego, check his nastiness, suspend his grift and, well, serve America. But then Christie, the former two-term governor of New Jersey, had plenty of company. And he never did style himself as some saint.
It’s all water under the George Washington Bridge now. The Chris Christie of the current moment is magnificent. I don’t mean magnificent as in, he’s going to win the Republican presidential nomination. I don’t mean I’m rooting for a Christie presidency and regard him as the country’s possible salvation.
But what he’s doing in this Republican primary is very, very important. It also couldn’t be more emotionally gratifying to behold. He’s telling the unvarnished truth about Trump, and he’s the only candidate doing that. A former prosecutor, he’s artfully, aggressively and comprehensively making the case against Trump, knocking down all the rationalizations Trump has mustered and all the diversions he has contrived since his 37-count federal indictment.
None of the other candidates comes close. They’ve for the most part gagged themselves or decided to play laughable word games about who Trump is, what he has done and what he may yet do.
It’s as if they’re looking at this wild and repugnant hyena, it has democracy in its jaws, and they know they should call it what it is and acknowledge what it’s poised to devour, but they’ve decided that merely hinting at that is candor and courage enough: “I think it might be nice if we Republicans gave an herbivore a crack at the presidency”; “Let’s think about what a post-scavenger era for the Republican Party would look like.”
Then there’s Christie: “That’s one nasty, second-rate carnivore with no place on our savanna.” Never has a statement of the bestially obvious been so revolutionary.
In a poll released on Friday by The New Hampshire Journal, Christie had pulled into third place among Republicans in the state, far behind Trump, who had 47 percent of the vote, but not far behind Ron DeSantis, who had just 13. Christie had 9, followed by Mike Pence with 5. That partly reflects Christie’s decision to make his initial stand, so to speak, in New Hampshire. But it also reflects something else: He’s excellent at this.
Christie is to DeSantis what a Roman candle is to a scented votive. He explodes in a riot of color. DeSantis, on his best days, flickers.
My enchantment with Christie’s fireworks makes me a cliché. In an observant and witty analysis in The Atlantic on Monday with the headline “Chris Christie, Liberal Hero,” David Graham inventoried the adoring media coverage Christie has garnered, noting that while there’s zero evidence that Christie could actually win the contest he has entered, “pundits are swooning.”
But the swoon isn’t about Christie’s prospects. It’s about the hugely valuable contrast to other Republican presidential candidates that he’s providing. And about this: The health of American democracy hinges on a reckoning within the Republican Party, and that won’t come from Democrats saying the kinds of things that Christie is now. They’ve been doing that for years. It’ll come — if it even can — from the words and warnings of longtime Republicans who know how to get and use the spotlight.
Did you see Christie’s CNN town hall last week? Have you watched or listened to any of his interviews? He’s funny. He’s lively. He’s crisp. And he’s right. Over the past few weeks, he has described Trump’s behavior as “vanity run amok.” Trump himself is “a petulant child.”
At the town hall: “He is voluntarily putting our country through this. If at any point before the search in August of ’22 he had just done what anyone, I suspect, in this audience would have done, which is said, ‘All right, you’re serious? You’re serving a grand jury subpoena? Let me just give the documents back,’ he wouldn’t have been charged. Wouldn’t have been charged with anything even though he had kept them for almost a year and a half.”
Other candidates, who prefer not to talk about the charges against Trump, are reportedly worried that his indictment will mean ceaseless chatter about him and extra difficulty promoting their own (muted and muddled) messages. Josh Barro, on his Substack newsletter Very Serious, nailed the absurdity of that, pointing out that Trump’s front-runner status and enormous lead over all of them guarantee that he’ll always monopolize the conversation, indictment or no indictment.
“The Republican nomination campaign cannot — and will not — be about anything but Donald Trump, and the media is not going to invite them on TV to talk about topics other than Donald Trump,” Barro wrote. “So, since they are going to talk about Donald Trump all the time, they had better talk about why he should not be nominated.” Christie is getting invitations and attention because he is doing precisely that. Maybe, just maybe, some of them will take note and wise up.
To the conundrum of what, if Christie qualifies for the Republican primary debates, he’ll do about the required pledge that he support whoever winds up getting the party’s nomination, he has apparently found a solution that’s suited to Republicans’ willful and nihilistic captivity to Trump, the stupidity of the pledge and the stakes of the race: He’ll sign what he must and later act as he pleases.
“I will do what I need to do to be up on that stage to try to save my party and save my country,” he told Jake Tapper on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday morning.
Chris Christie, superhero? He has his own supersize vanity. He is arguably playing the only part in the crowded primary field available to him. And those dynamics may have as much to do with his assault on Trump as moral indignation does. Even so, saving his party and country agrees with him.
DeSantis, Pence, Tim Scott, Nikki Haley and other Republican presidential candidates are clearly telling themselves that they can’t do any good down the road if at this intersection they provoke Trump and run afoul of his supporters. Where have we heard that before? It’s a version of what Christie said to himself in 2016. He now sees the folly of that fable.
For the Love of Sentences
Several Shakespeare-conscious, pest-minded lines in Maureen Dowd’s “To Jail or Not to Jail” column in The Times constituted perhaps the most-nominated passage of writing in this newsletter feature’s history: “We can’t shuffle off the mortal coil of Trump. He has burrowed, tick-like, into the national bloodstream, causing all kinds of septic responses.” (Thanks to Phyllis Wolf of Albuquerque, N.M., and Avon Crawford of Norwalk, Iowa, among many, many others, for shining a spotlight on that.)
In The Globe and Mail of Toronto, Andrew Coyne assessed the current Trumpian crossroads: “So we come to the present pass, with the world’s most powerful nation, with all of its magnificent history and intricate constitutional architecture, at the mercy of a pathological narcissist, trembling at the thought of bringing him to justice — as if it were the act of applying the law to him, and not his brazen defiance of it, that were the anomaly.” Coyne also commented on how Trump, in the wake of his federal indictment, is trying “to bring the whole U.S. justice system down around him.” “This is not the reaction of a normal person,” he continued. “It is not even the reaction of a mob boss. It is the reaction of a Batman villain.” (Stella Deacon, Toronto, and Julie Fleming, Toronto)
In The Guardian, Jonathan Freedland wrote: “The three tenors of showman populism, Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and Silvio Berlusconi, reached the top through a combination of telegenic clownishness, ‘I alone can fix it’ braggadocio and a shared strain of narcissistic nationalism — and now one faces the judgment of the courts, another has fled the judgment of his peers, while the third contemplates the judgment of the heavens.” (Harriette Royer, Rochester, N.Y.)
Let’s pivot from Trump and Trump analogues to Trump sycophants. In The Atlantic, Tom Nichols described how J.D. Vance, who once spoke with such disparaging and devastating accuracy about Trump, did a self-serving about-face in his 2022 Senate race in Ohio and, reprogrammed by that victory, never looked back: “What he once wore as electoral camouflage is now tattooed all over him, in yet another fulfillment of the late Kurt Vonnegut’s warning that, eventually, ‘we are what we pretend to be.’” (Debbie Landis, Garrison, N.Y.)
On to books! John Williams noted in The Washington Post that most of the novels of Cormac McCarthy, who died last week, were “quite Old Testament in spirit — the purpose of evil is none of your business, keep suffering — until, arguably, ‘The Road,’ a story of a father and son at the end of the world with increasingly loud echoes of Christian symbology. ‘All the Pretty Horses’ made McCarthy literary famous; ‘The Road’ made him Oprah Winfrey famous.” (Jim Osteen, Washington, D.C.)
Also in The Post, in a review of Lorrie Moore’s new novel, “I Am Homeless if This Is Not My Home,” Ron Charles explained that for Moore, the hospice is “a mordant metaphor for human existence, a place where laughter isn’t the best medicine, it’s the only medicine: All we’ve got left is a collection of bedpans and deadpans.” (John Jacoby, Cambridge, Mass.)
In The Salt Lake Tribune, Courtney Tanner fashioned a clever start to her article about one of the more unexpected recent examples of book banning: “In the beginning, a parent filed a challenge to have the Bible removed from Davis School District libraries, citing passages describing sex and violence. The district said let there be a review of the book. And it was so.” (Yoram Bauman, Salt Lake City)
In The Times, Suzanne Garfinkle-Crowell wrote: “Teenagers suffer for many reasons. One is being fragile and in formation — a human construction site.” (Virginia Wise, Woodstock, Vt.)
And Amy Nicholson reviewed the new movie “Elemental,” calling it “the latest Pixar premise to feel like someone laced the cafeteria’s kombucha keg with ayahuasca.” (Abigail Kent, Alameda, Calif.)
To nominate favorite bits of recent writing from The Times or other publications to be mentioned in “For the Love of Sentences,” please email me here and include your name and place of residence.
On a Personal Note
I’ve never been one for watching movies on planes, at least not on one of those shrunken screens embedded in the back of the seat in front of me. (My iPad is a different matter.) The picture quality is awful. The audio is mush. Together they’re barely an approximation of the director’s and the cast members’ intents. It’s like reading an aggressively abridged novel in which every adjective has been deleted and blackberry jam smudged across parts of every other page. You get the gist, but in a soulless, messy fashion.
I am, however, a fervent guesser of movies on planes: I half-watch the movies chosen by passengers in seats near me, trying to figure out what’s going on, filling in the blanks with assumptions and imagination, doing a bit of amateur lip-reading, doing a lot of detective work.
What might Drew Barrymore be telling Adam Sandler? Across several flights, I’ve seen disconnected, out-of-order scenes from their rom-com “50 First Dates,” so I have some ideas about the movie and of course an opinion of it without knowing whether either is remotely on the mark. I sort of like the nebulousness and irresolution of that. They match the dull images and fuzzy sound. I’m not doing a disservice to the experience of the movie in a proper setting. I’m turning it into something entirely different, part Rorschach, part game.
Ben Affleck is preternaturally grave in “The Accountant,” which seems like great, tense fun. While I’ve assembled probably 60 percent of “50 First Dates” from the jigsaw-puzzle pieces of my oblique angle, soundless perusals of it, I’ve put together at least 80 percent of Affleck’s thriller. I mean, I’m confident it’s a thriller. There are firearms, chases, ominous shots of important rooms and august buildings in Washington, D.C.
When you half-watch a movie this way, without the soundtrack nudging you or the plot points lucidly laid out, you develop a new appreciation for the different editing rhythms, visual compositions and palettes of different genres. You know the emotional key in which the movie is being played even if you deduce little else about it. For a true movie lover, that’s a peculiar delight.
Hey, we all have our viewing quirks. It turns out that a big fraction of Americans watch everything with the subtitles turned on, and by everything I’m including and principally mean movies and shows in English. It’s not translation they’re looking for. It’s — I don’t know — reassurance, extra clarity. Devin Gordon explored and explained that phenomenon in a terrifically engaging recent article in The Atlantic, and I’m happy to report that he was as baffled and unsettled as I am.
What I do on planes is the opposite of that. Instead of beating back confusion, I embrace it. Or, really, take advantage of it. That line that Drew just delivered must have been hilarious. That encounter Ben just had was surely terrifying. Half-watched, quarter-understood movies are like trailers: They’re all promise and no letdown, which is a welcome inversion of much of life.
Frank Bruni is a professor of journalism and public policy at Duke University, the author of the book “The Beauty of Dusk” and a contributing Opinion writer. He writes a weekly email newsletter. Instagram • @FrankBruni • Facebook
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