TRENTON, N.J. — It may be the defining image of Chris Christie in the days after Superstorm Sandy: the governor clasping President Obama’s hand, the president placing his hand on Christie’s shoulder in a moment of shared grief.
That embrace of the president — a Democrat days away from re-election in a race many Republicans believed at the time still close — still has Republicans seething and pundits analyzing how it will affect Christie’s national potential.
Politics, Christie said, never crossed his mind when Obama called.
“Part of what I don’t think people understand is, political people think I was sitting there thinking about, ‘How do I move the pieces on the chess board?’ ” Christie said during an interview with The Record ahead of the one-year anniversary of the storm. “I was looking at that saying to myself, ‘My God, what am I going to do?’ ”
But it was not until angry Republicans began calling him — two days after Obama’s Oct. 31 visit — that Christie said he started to think about the political implications of that hug, an embrace that came to symbolize their tight, working relationship.
Christie detailed that relationship in an expansive interview in his State House office to mark the one-year anniversary of the storm that reshaped both the state and his career. A politician adept at delivering his message, Christie seemed starkly honest when recalling the emotion of those days and when detailing how he tried to convey that shock to the president.
It was Obama who reached out and initiated the relationship with a phone call on Oct. 30, early on the day after the storm had slammed into the state, Christie said.
That first call came, Christie recalled, as he and his team were struggling to come to terms with the depth of the destruction as it became evident in television images showing houses in the middle of Route 35 and scenes of the ocean meeting the bay in Mantoloking.
The president asked if he could visit the state.
“If you understand the emotional condition we were all in, all of us in this administration sitting around that table watching that, you’d understand that very soon thereafter, probably two or three hours after that, he called for the first time,” Christie said. “I’m like, man, ‘Can I come?’ Tell me where and when and I’ll be there. I need your help.”
Christie recalled that the two men were often in contact during the initial recovery period. At times, the president even caught Christie off guard.
“I went to go look at the roller coaster and the destroyed pier (in Seaside Heights) and I was walking out on the pier and my cellphone rang and I looked down and it was a blocked number and I was like, ‘I’m not going to answer this; maybe I should.’ And I answered it and said, ‘Chris Christie.’ And he said, ‘Hey Chris, it’s the president.’ I’m like, man, I’m glad I took that. Glad the president didn’t go to voicemail. It was that kind of interaction. It was regular; it was substantive.”
Those calls led to a tour of the destruction the next day — the day the photo was taken — where they saw the now iconic Seaside Heights roller coaster submerged in the Atlantic Ocean, houses pushed off foundations, streets covered in sand and boardwalk piers swallowed by floodwaters.
Christie’s kind words for Obama now fit in the narrative the governor has crafted as he seeks re-election, challenged by Democratic state Sen. Barbara Buono. Christie has made bipartisanship a cornerstone of his campaign pitch to voters. Fifty-eight elected Democrats have endorsed him, citing his leadership during Sandy or his work with their party on tax-cutting measures as the reason for backing him.
Beyond that, Christie’s post-Sandy interactions with Obama could have enduring political value for someone widely viewed as a presidential contender in 2016. The image of two men from different parties working together toward a common goal could serve to distinguish Christie among his fellow Republicans at a time when the party has been widely criticized as in the control of hard-liners who view bipartisanship as capitulation.
But Christie said their interactions were based solely on pragmatism and the need to get things done.
“From minute one, my state was destroyed, so I was going to have a real relationship with him if he was willing to have one,” Christie said.
The governor said Obama told him to call whenever he needed something, and he did and always received help.
“He and I spoke every day for at least the next 10 days — every day — sometimes more than once a day and it was substantive conversations,” Christie said. “I needed help on something that the bureaucracy wasn’t giving me. That was at least four or five times I called him and said, ‘I hate to bother you with this, sir, but you told me if I needed help to call you, and FEMA is driving me crazy or the Army is driving me crazy and I don’t understand this and can you help me?’ And each and every time that I did that within an hour the problem was fixed.”
Christie said Obama had a personal connection to the state after witnessing the damaging firsthand and meeting with victims.
“We were up in the helicopter together and he saw the fires burning in Bay Head and Mantoloking and then on LBI and he just said to me, ‘I’ve never seen anything like this,’ ” Christie recalled. “So I think he was also struck emotionally by what he saw and he was concerned, and he would call just to kind of check in on how I was doing in addition to the substantive stuff we would talk about.”
During the interview last week, Christie contrasted his dealings with Obama positively against those with House Speaker John Boehner, a fellow Republican.
Christie said he knew exactly what he was doing when he called a State House news conference two months after the storm to attack the Ohio Republican. The governor had spent hours calling GOP members to get support for the aid package at a time when tea party Republicans were pushing members to cut the federal deficit.
“Thirty-one days for (Hurricane) Andrew victims, 17 days for victims of Gustav and Ike, 10 days for victims of Katrina, for the victims of Sandy in New Jersey, New York and Connecticut, it has been 66 days and the wait continues,” Christie fumed. “There is only one group to blame for the continued suffering of these innocent victims — the House majority and their speaker, John Boehner.”
Christie said in last week’s interview with The Record that he called Boehner to warn him about what he planned to do, before delivering the scathing remarks that were carried live on CNN. Boehner had broken a promise that a vote would happen before the new session, Christie said in the interview with The Record.
That delay meant the state would not begin receiving aid until May, and the governor still blames members of his own party for slowing the recovery.
“I would have given the president the exact same treatment if the president had ever broken his word to me on things he told me were going to happen with relation to Sandy,” Christie said. “He never has, so that’s why he hasn’t gotten that treatment. Because believe me, if he had, I would have been happy to give it to him, too, because that’s my job, right? That’s my job.”
©2013 The Record (Hackensack, N.J.)
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