My first reaction to Chris Christie’s infamous beach pictures was probably the same as everyone else’s — Chris Christie gets a beach house as governor of New Jersey? No wonder they can’t pass a budget.
But my second reaction was surprise that people, including me, by the way, could not stop talking about this man’s hypocrisy, after he closed the state’s beaches on one day and then hosted a family and friends holiday on those exact same beaches the next. Was he naive, brazen, or just totally beyond caring what anyone thinks about him anymore?
The fact that Christie is a hypocrite should surprise no one, nor should his response — he refused to apologize for “putting my family first.” Huh? This is the man who was celebrated when he burst onto the national political scene for “telling it like it is.” And who was re-elected with more 60 percent of the vote, even after he told a teacher she could just stop teaching when she challenged him about the quality of the state’s schools.
The reality is that Christie and his glorious beach chair are a small example of the big problem in America — we expect a government to be more and to do more than we do ourselves.
The real problem
Too many of us are doing the easy part of being Americans, we literally wake up free. Maybe we’ll fly the flag in front of the house or post a patriotic message on Facebook for July Fourth. But we are largely leaving the hard work of keeping America what it is to somebody else.
As much as people are fed up with government and leaders like Christie, what are we doing in our own civic lives — not necessarily to change politics, but to build our communities? Fewer and fewer have served in the military, many don’t know who their congressman is until we’re mad about something, and when we communicate with that person or others about politics, it’s not always in a respectful way. I am as much an advocate for public town hall meetings as anyone, but when members of Congress can’t even explain their votes over protesters yelling at them, it’s easy to see why they get into a defensive crouch.
We seem more and more to get diverted from the important by the preposterous, watch the same cable news screamers we swear we hate, and blame our elected officials for problems in the country when we’re the ones who put those people in charge in the first place or ignored their elections entirely. Once elected, we punish them when they do something necessary, but unpopular, like cutting budgets or benefits, but balk when taxes go up to pay the bills.
Turnout in the last midterm election was the lowest in 70 years. When just 36 percent of people bother to show up for congressional elections, is it any wonder most people say they’re not happy with the Congress they’ve got? Christie was elected in a landslide, but it was also the lowest turnout for a governor’s race in New Jersey history. Maybe that was the root of his problem all along.
A Chris Christie sunning himself on a closed New Jersey beach is just a red-faced symbol of Americans getting the government we largely deserve. We can do better.
Being an American requires so much more than what most of us contribute to the country in our daily lives, starting with the way we think about and talk to our fellow Americans. I have always thought of politics as an important window into people whose lives are different from our own. But what I see more often than not now are people discounting or attacking their friends and neighbors if one of them voted for Donald Trump for president and the other voted for Hillary Clinton. We aren’t each other’s enemies.
Things we can do
It’s worth remembering this week that the Founding Fathers made declarations for all men, not just the ones they agreed with. When presidents address the nation, they usually speak to “my fellow Americans,” not “everyone who voted for me or at least thought about it.”
Because of what I do for a living, I have a chance to give speeches and talks about politics. The question-and-answer portions are always the most interesting. Recently, I was asked how and why politics have become so ugly, but the question came at an event made up almost entirely of progressive Democrats who are still genuinely sick and confused about the election. Having more Republicans there to talk about anything but politics would probably have done more to make the group of Democrats feel better about the country than anything I could have said.
I also get an incredible number of questions about how to stop the influence of “fake news,” to which I usually ask people whether they pay for their local newspaper anymore. Typically, the answer is no. Start paying for news, at least some of it, I suggest, and apply a “DNR” rule to anything you read online — do not read and do not repeat anything from a source you don’t already know and trust.
Finally, worried voters, especially women, tell me again and again how frustrated they are with the direction the country is going in. But almost without exception, they won’t consider running for office themselves.
The common thread in those complaints, and in the Chris Christie riddle of how that guy ended up on a ratty beach chair in front of the New Jersey governor’s retreat by the shore in the first place, is that they all have the same problem and they all have the same solution — and they’re both looking back at Americans in their mirrors every day. We’re the problem, America, but we’re also the solution.
It’s time for each of us to decide which one of the two we’re going to be.