I just returned from China when NJ Gov. Chris Christie shouted down a sign-yielding spectator while speaking in my small shore town of Belmar yesterday. He was here to mark the two-year anniversary of Superstorm Sandy, which devastated the area.
But when he eyed the poster-sized plea to “Get Sandy families back in their homes — Finish the job,” the potential presidential hopeful switched mid-thought to his trademark snark: “Hey buddy, I see you. But we’re the ones who have been actually doing the work.” He called the sign-holder a “guy who doesn’t know a damn thing about what he’s talking about except to show off for the cameras.” As soon as the man tried to respond, Christie out-yelled him. “Turn around, get your 15 minutes of fame, then maybe roll up your sleeves and do something for the people of this state.” With cops closing in on his prey, the gov put icing on his vitriol cake, practically spitting the words, “Until then, just sit down and shut up.”
Jet lag does funny things to a brain. Or maybe just my brain. And maybe just jet lag from a communist country. But when I heard whistles and applause for yet another horrific gubernatorial performance, I fell like I was back in Tiananmen Square.
Then I glimpsed the target of Christie’s tirade and I was even more dismayed. Jim Keady grew up in my town. For weeks after Sandy, he led teams of volunteers – including my teenage son, Seán – into knee-deep muck to drain basements, tear out sopping drywall and haul moldy carpeting. He joined my husband and I as we helped deploy manpower and supplies from our borough-hall-turned-relief-center. We all gave a lot in those cold, electricity-less weeks following the storm, but I can’t think of anyone who pitched in more than Jim, a former pro soccer player who used to back up Olympic goalie Tim Howard. Now he dedicates his life to a number of causes. One of them is the legions of families not able to get back into their homes after all this time — hence the sign that set the governor off.
I know if this happened in China, Jim would surely be dragged away to jail, or worse, rather than making the rounds of national media to tell his side of the story. So, I guess this is the place where I’m supposed to say that we’re lucky to live in America, that democracy trumps everything. And I’m sure I do believe this. But in my stupor of 3 a.m., lying awake with my body still 12 hours ahead on Beijing time, I am disgusted by trickle-down politics cum reality TV. I yearn for a democracy built on civility and respect, where mean is not a synonym for freedom, and where our leaders embody the dignity of their office.
Maybe I just need to think of panda cubs for a while. That will make anyone calm down, smile, and hopefully sleep…