JERSEY CITY – Redemption.
In private it is a matter between man and God or man and conscience, unfettered by the faceless jeers from the safe seats in the Roman Colosseum.
In public, it is perhaps the same, but with arguably the additional weight of public woe, which would consign a man to repent endlessly for the sake of a debt never quite paid – or simply a punchline.
For two banged up guys with the title “governor” in front of their Christian names, a stage of redemption found them bear-hugging across the social gulf of that thorniest of public crises called prisoner reentry.
The men who spoke about their journey today described color blindness when they came out of their cinder block confines, even those who spent just 17 months there, or the sensation of forgetting the smell of the ocean, or the anxiety of hearing buses talk after last riding public transportation in the 1980s.
Drummed out of Drumthwacket in 2004, McGreevey, for his part, has rolled for a decade in some capacity this boulder now called the NJ Reentry Corporation, in this, the city of his birth, confronting head on the reality of 670 blacks, 220 Latinos, and 109 white clients trying to reintegrate into society after serving prison sentences.
Then there’s Christie, appearing here on the heels of the Bridgegate scandal, Jerry Jones theatrics, followed by a disastrous run for president, dragging nearly bottomed-out poll numbers, and in the immediate aftermath of a Newark-sized chew-out at the microphone delivered by perennial community activist Donna Jackson.
The obvious raw unspoken political subtext within McGreevey’s presence in the McMahon Student Center on the campus of St. Peter’s University and all the accompanying stagecraft among remains of prisoners reanimating piece by piece as human beings, was that if the ex-governor and ex-cons could climb back to the light, so too could Christie.
“He’s done more than anyone,” said McGreevey, signaling a sturdy support system here for his fellow front office headline maker.
There were doubtful grumbles as Christie mounted the stage.
The sitting governor, in return, swatted at the culture of other practitioners of their mutual discipline who don’t get it – “Politicians who just want to make the headlines,” he griped at one point. He unhypocritically too used that reliably ungrammatical phrase prized by politicians to escape accountability – “mistakes were made” – when referencing prisoners making mistakes.
The effect reaffirmed a non-judgemental mood at the conference.
Now nothing shuts up a room like someone saying, “I was convicted of murder,” into a microphone, and there was at least one stark moment like that today of bone-chilling silence amid jammed tables, as Tom Reigel, a middle-aged man in tattoos and dungarees, spoke humbly about coming back to life after 30 years behind bars.
But once he sat alongside his guv’s office predecessor, Christie too soon quieted those mildly grousing audience-members.
“When people get cancer or heart disease or diabetes, even though your personal conduct has contributed to that disease, we don’t say to anyone ”we’re not going to treat you,'” said the governor. “Yet with drugs and alcohol, we still have that sense of moral superiority.
“We have to continue talking about this as an illness,” he added, to broad nods of agreement in the crowd.
Having stilled any early braying with an eloquent and impassioned opening monologue, Christie – ever the artful speaker – comfortably onstage in his home state after (or in the midst of an ongoing) national circus tour – showed resiliency on this quasi-rehabilitation pit stop even as he continues to keep his political paws fastened firmly on the coattails of billionaire real estate tycoon Donald Trump, the front-runner for the 2016 GOP prez nomination.
He convincingly added his lines to the theme of redemption.
“There are employers willing to give these folks another chance,” he said, when he riffed in detail on jobs.
That was the core of his contribution here.
“I can’t thank you enough for what you’re doing,” Christie told McGreevey. “We need more people to help each other.”
What political machination might next rise from out of the aftermath of redemption and redemption’s ashes?
“God created us with our flaws,” the sitting governor said. “We don’t respond to our better angels everyday. I don’t, you don’t. Faith is rooted in unconditional love.
“God has not abandoned us,” Christie added. “That’s a part of second chances. That’s why He died, to give us a second chance.”
As he departed, the Republican governor received a standing ovation.
“Governor Christie, ladies and gentlemen,” McGreevey said.
A source hovering within Jersey City politics couldn’t help but acknowledge Christie’s performance.
“He’ll be back at 40% approval rating in no time,” the source said, his voice straddling gloom and awe.