One of them surprised me when he spoke.
“Storm’s coming in hard, best bet is to lay up here while she blows over.”
But that wouldn’t do. Gov. Chris Christie would be speaking in a few hours on the first day of the Republican National Convention and I had assured my editor Daryl Isherwood that PolitickerNJ would be there for the opening act. Maybe skipping it wouldn’t have mattered too much, but Daryl had called several times to make sure I would be there.
Losing one’s life for a throw away speech by Chris Christie.
It really is a bug on the windshield existence sometimes, reporting, which explains why so many people finally wash out of it, or go mad.
The screen door swatted closed behind me, then blew open with the next gust and flailed a spastic goodbye as I pulled out of there and nosed deeper into the hurricane.
Hydroplaning southward past all those shouldered fellow travelers, you get a better approximation of the true absurdity of this profession. My chances didn’t look good to get there. I can still hear the absolutely futile back and forth motion of the windshield wipers. It’s the kind of sound you imagine a sadistic film director fixes on to help him tell his story after the hero’s car has gone off the road and the protagonist is killed. Swish-swipe-swish-swipe-sswish-swipe.
Cut to darkness.
I pulled off for gas again somewhere just north of my destination, which was Tampa, by the way, scene of the 2012 Republican National Convention and ground zero for the Chris Christie road show. There were suspended TV sets all over the place blinking in and out of focus as they tried to project up to date shots of the storm wreaking havoc. Someone in a cowboy hat and boots said something to the effect that Cuba had gone missing. Anyway, it looked like people were settling in for the night.
But PolitickerNJ intrepidly pressed onward, trying to beat the clock as the storm intensified.
The phone rang.
It was Isherwood.
We let him dangle.
There was no point in trying to make oneself heard over gale force winds.
We got to Tampa, and it seemed like we had enough time to make the speech, the highlight of an evening dinner event.
Then the text from Isherwood.
“Where are you?”
So we were in Tampa, but the trouble is that Tampa is a pretty big southern city, and my destination was St. Pete’s Beach, which is clear on the other side of town – which you couldn’t see, in the rain – with one of the country’s biggest bridges between us. Did I mention that I suffer from vertigo? In the middle of that storm, the bridge looked like an upended aircraft carrier on its way straight down into the maw of a dusk colored Gulf of Mexico. The trick with that is you just close your eyes and floor it and hope the car stays in a straight line. There was no one else up there so it wasn’t as if we were going to run into anything – unless it was one of those Space 1999 spiderweb stanchions.
Somehow we made it over.
Having scorned GPS long ago as something for people with no sense of direction, we drove idiotically around those islands for a good half an hour before finally finding the hotel, all but crash landing, and running in just in time to catch the tail end of Christie’s speech.
It was a big banquet hall as I recall, and it was mobbed, and Christie – who had stared hard at his own run for president that year then decided against it – played a starring role in that convention as the keynoter. This was a Jersey crowd at the hotel where the delegation planned to hole up for the next week and they loved them. Everyone there had a harrowing story about getting through that storm. I hate to keep relying on movie references but the big room really did have a Poseidon Adventure feel to it. With that storm raging outside, you felt it any moment as though the whole room was just going to go belly up and leave people hanging from the chandeliers. Certainly there were people who didn’t make it to that party. I don’t mean that they died on the way. They just got as far as Newark Airport then called it a convention.
Christie was in his element, taking questions from reporters and grooving through a loving crowd. I remember no one really liking the party’s presidential nominee, Mitt Romney; no one that is except state Senator Joe Kyrillos (R-13), a candidate for U.S. Senate that year, who had always been a Mitt loyalist. The mood around Christie was that he should have run, that Mitt was a stiff and the party might have been able to beat Barack Obama with Christie as the candidate.
One episode stands out down there, and that was a round table press conference the governor did with New Jersey reporters. PolitickerNJ asked the governor for his sense regarding Romney’s political intelligence and Christie, at close range, visibly flinched. Then he acknowledged that Romney had to find “his human side” in order to connect with the electorate.
“If he does that, he wins,” Christie said.
He didn’t evidently – and he didn’t. Win, that is.
But what also didn’t happen, which looked like such a sure thing at the time, was that Christie – so strong, so capable of inducing starry eyed fervor with the GOP then – would try to build on his success in the months ahead yet never regain his national edge post Bridgegate. He would go on to win reelection a year later, but his methods on that campaign trail exposed the questionable inner workings of a machine and unravel him to the point where his eventual run for the presidency fizzled in a field of 19. Back there on St. Pete’s Beach, contrasted with the likes of Romney, he had almost looked sufficiently human to be damn well unbeatable.
Christie’s 2012 convention had been the high point of a ride that even resisted a hurricane.