by Jason Fagone
Some quick thoughts on the New Yorker’s big Chris Christie story by Ryan Lizza:
It’s a great Christie profile. I’ve been interested in Christie since I wrote about him for Philly mag in 2010, and I’ve been waiting for someone to go back over his early career, 1993 to 1997, when he first began building a reputation as a corruption fighter and trampling opponents. He won his first campaign, for instance, by smearing a 62-year-old grandmother and former schoolteacher named Cecelia Laureys, along with two of her ticketmates. I always thought this was a telling episode, yet it seemed to disappear from his biography. Here’s Lizza’s paragraph that resurrects it:
Christie lowered his expectations and, for his second campaign, ran for freeholder. This time, he was a reform candidate, promising to restore honest government, and he produced a TV ad charging that three of his opponents in the nine-person Republican primary were being “investigated by the Morris County prosecutor,” a serious accusation that happened to be false. Christie won the primary and then the general election, in part by assuring a more socially moderate electorate, “I am pro-choice.” But his victory was marred by the divisiveness of the campaign. The three victims of Christie’s false ad, including a freeholder named Cecilia Laureys, successfully sued him for defamation, and, after he lost an appeal, as part of the settlement he was forced to apologize to them in local newspapers. Laureys died last July, but her son, Christopher, who was her communications director, told me, “This was beyond the pale of what anyone had ever done in politics in Morris County. He was a lawyer who said they were being criminally investigated. He looked into the camera and lied.”
It’s not really a Christie profile. The true subject of the story is how power functions in New Jersey, a state whose structure of government lends itself to balkanization and rule by political bosses. Lizza meets a boss from the north, Joseph DiVincenzo, and a boss from the south, George Norcross, and gets these guys talking with a remarkable frankness about their political operations. I have no idea how Lizza pulled this off. But it’s useful that he did, because once you see the tectonic plates of New Jersey, you can appreciate how shrewdly Christie navigated the terrain.
With the launch of Vox, there’s been a lot of discussion about its model of “explanatory journalism.” I like what I’ve seen on Vox so far and think they’ve found a promising new form. (I also admire that they launched their site with a piece on confirmation bias, a phenomenon that complicates the project of explanatory journalism and a lot of other journalism besides; it seems way better to name the problem and describe it clearly than to not address it at all.) But this New Yorker story is the kind of explanatory journalism that has always excited me. Here you get a whole world: not just the gears of an entire political culture but the people at the levers and the people caught in the works. And it’s thrilling.