Unless you spent Passover in an undisclosed location — an idea that sounds better with each passing year — you probably heard that Chris Christie and family spent four days in Israel. The media had a field day with the governor’s trip and what it meant or didn’t mean about his national ambitions. The governor’s office wasn’t exactly shy about the trip: Each day brought a fresh news releases and batches of photos, all prominently branded “Journey to Jerusalem,” like a concert tour. We covered the trip extensively.
So when Christie’s office invited me and a number of other Jewish journalists to Drumthwacket to discuss the trip, I wasn’t sure what more could be said. Not much, as it turns out, but it was a great opportunity to see Christie up close and get a better sense of what the trip meant to him. The governor shmoozed with us for over an hour and gave glimpses of the various sides of a public figure enjoying the attention he is getting from the press, from his own party, and even from heads of state like Benjamin Netanyahu and King Abdullah II of Jordan.
“You have to remember,” he said at one point, “this is all new for Mary Pat and me. Two-and-a-half years ago there were more people sitting around this table than those who thought I could beat Jon Corzine. Now I am walking up to the Western Wall and being mobbed by Americans and Israelis.”
Christie walked us through the highlights of his trip: a meeting and private dinner with Netanyahu, state business with Teva Pharmaceutical and A Better Place, the electric vehicle innovators. He spoke passionately, and even movingly, about his audience with Israeli President Shimon Peres. “It was like walking into a history book,” he said of his meeting with the two-time prime minister, Nobel Peace Prize winner, and right-hand man to Ben-Gurion.
Christie was impressed that Peres spoke about none of that.
“He spent all of his time talking about the future and not the past,” said Christie. “He’s 89, and he talked about how he saw Israel in 10 years” from now.
Christie brought his wife, father, mother-in law, and three of his four children on the trip, and it was clear that that meant a lot to him. Parenthood, in fact, seemed to be a subplot of his meetings with Netanyahu and Abdullah. Among other things, he and Netanyahu “talked about the challenge of raising children when you’re in the public eye.” And his brief, and relatively private, visit to Jordan came about after he and the king met a few years back at Michael Bloomberg’s house and spoke about, among other things, their kids. “He has four kids, two boys and two girls, and I have four kids, two boys and two girls,” said Christie. The two family’s kids are close in age, and Abdullah spoke at that meeting in New York about getting the families together and invited Christie to visit. “And he was right,” said the governor. “The kids got along really well.”
Adorable, right? The king and the Jersey guy, sitting around the pool with the wives and kids? But there was nothing disingenuous in Christie’s telling of the story or about the kick he got out of sharing the experience with his children. And I would love to have been a fly on the wall for the dads’ conversations. All Christie would tell us is that Abdullah asked about the governor’s talks with Netanyahu, “and then offered his views.” Since Christie only saw the West Bank from the seat of a helicopter, I’m curious how his conversations with the king fleshed out the picture.
One of my colleagues, in fact, raised the obvious point that Christie’s visit did not include meetings with the Palestinian Authority. “I made a conscious decision” not to meet with Palestinian leaders, Christie replied, “but it was not a political statement. I wanted to focus on Israel in my four days and did not want to dilute that experience.” But he didn’t rule out such a meeting, saying, “there may be a time” when he would return to the region and “I will meet with the P.A.”
When I asked about the media speculation over his political plans, Christie turned playful, saying he can’t wake up in the morning without sparking such talk. But without dropping any bombshells (saying that while he intends to continue serving New Jersey, he would politely “listen” were Mitt Romney to call and talk about joining his ticket), Christie confidently described himself as “a voice in my party nationally,” adding that he wants to “grow that part of my portfolio.” The trip, he said, was intended in part to help him develop a “strong and informed” voice on Mideast issues. It “awakened” him to Israel’s real security challenges, especially the “narrow waistline” that leaves Israel’s center within easy missile range of a future Palestinian state.
As to whether such knowledge will come in handy — in 2012, 2016, or 2020 — the 49-year-old Christie reached back to an old saying he learned growing up in Livingston, “Man plans, and God laughs,” said Christie, earning laughter from the Jewish reporters who know it in the original Yiddish.