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Squeeze Play

His favorite team may have ridden off into the sunset, but Chris Christie's run through the NFL playoffs sheds light on the interplay of sports and politics

NEW JERSEY governor Chris Christie has not made many friends in his march to national political prominence. Enemies, though? There were the people he yelled at during press conferences, for one, and the trustees of pension funds who sued him, and all the commuters stuck in traffic because, um, his lieutenants had an ax to grind.

But all of that combined—which would interest investigative reporters and prosecutors and perhaps the teachers once charged with instructing little Chris on how to play nice—registers for many as less noteworthy and revulsive than leaping to bear-hug Jerry Jones in his box at Cowboys Stadium during a 24--20 wild-card win over the Lions on Jan. 4, the team's first playoff victory since Christie's inauguration. Fox caught the moment after Matthew Stafford's end-of-game fumble made Dallas's win official: The governor and Stephen Jones, the owner's son, made a sandwich out of the old man.

Yet the embrace, a sloppy thing that featured more sweat than shame, became the story. (That and Christie's apparent unreturned high-five that preceded it.) It played over and over online and on television throughout the week. Jones called Christie the team's good-luck charm. Outside the Lines producers fished Kinky Friedman out of his cigar shop, and he quickly called Christie and Jones latent homosexuals. The hug even spawned a handful of serious inquiries: Had Jones gotten any sweet deals from New Jersey because of his friendship with Christie? (They both say no.) Had taxpayers been funding Christie's jaunts to Jerry World? (They both say no.)

Good questions—too good for this world, too high-minded. No, popular curiosity seized on the hug because it appeared to capture a highly sought-after TV moment: the politician's gaffe. The sports-related misstep, after all, seems to crystallize what even the best political commentators cannot. If the politician pulls off public fandom easily—think Barack Obama and the Chicago Bulls—he's a regular guy, responsive and relatable. But if he bungles a name or a stat, he must have just been pandering to Joe Six-Pack.

I'll cop to a onetime fondness for these moments, dating back to John Kerry's 2004 presidential bid. My yearbook page from 2005 lists among my favorite quotes one from Kerry when he identified "Manny Ortez" as his favorite Red Sox slugger. (He immediately amended his words, to "David Ortez," but the damage had been done.) In that moment, Kerry had outed himself as a lightweight and the Swiss-on-a-cheesesteak snob much of the electorate had presumed him to be.

I've since come around on Kerry's flubs. If you're inclined to read any meaning into them at all, they evince unforgivable elitism less than they do admirable deference to the public. O.K., our vulgar pursuits didn't interest him nearly as much as he claimed. At least he made an effort! We've all faked enthusiasms. Did Boston residents hold it against longtime mayor Tom Menino when he talked about the classic moment when "Varitek split the uprights"? He left office in 2014 with an 82% approval rating. Besides, it'd be worse if a sitting senator charged with many legislative and diplomatic responsibilities, not to mention a presidential campaign, had started whining about Terry Francona's overuse of Alan Embree. Where does he find the time? we would ask.

Why bother, though? It's hard to see what sports-related gaffes could possibly tell us about a candidate. They're perpetually silly things, necessary cogs in an electoral system driven by personality more than policy, flubbed lines in an overdetermined screenplay.

And what, even, was Christie's sin? That he displayed genuine passion for his team? Heaven forbid. Maybe Christie, who picked up his Cowboy fandom as an antidote to the terrible Giants teams of the '70s, does deserve a ding for cheering on a team that has two division rivals beloved by New Jerseyans. But he's always had his sights on something bigger than the Garden State. He has spoken before about his belief in public demonstrations of American exceptionalism. And what better way to do that than in a luxury box inside a monolith named for an acquisitive telecom giant, built by a man who made much of his fortune by draining the earth to fulfill a generous deal from Arkansas's state utility? God bless America, God bless it all.


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