Chris Christie is, even in moments of tranquility—of which, in his life, there seem to be none—a torqued-up, joyously belligerent, easily baited, and preternaturally exuberant son of New Jersey, so bringing him to a Bruce Springsteen concert is an exercise in volcano management. Christie, in the presence of Springsteen—whom he would marry if he were gay and if gay people were allowed to marry in the state he governs—loses himself. He is, as is well known, a very large man—twice the width of Mitt Romney—but he is a very large man who dances at Springsteen concerts in front of many thousands of people without giving a damn what they think.
We are in a luxury suite at the Prudential Center—the Rock—in downtown Newark, the sort of suite accessible only to the American plutocracy, from which Springsteen seems to draw a surprisingly large proportion of his most devoted fans. (I know of three separate groups of one-percenters who recently flew in private jets to see Springsteen perform at Madison Square Garden.) Certainly not many residents of Newark could afford such a box, and the shrimp and steak that come with it. Christie’s bodyguards from the New Jersey State Police—he will sometimes play aloud on his iPhone Springsteen’s haunting and paranoid “State Trooper” while being driven by state troopers—keep the governor out of the cheap seats, where he says he’d rather be. Of course, he’s not opposed to upmarket seating and grilled shrimp—he’s a vociferous free-marketeer, who, for good reason, is a hero to the hedge-fund grandees across the river. He just likes mixing it up with his constituents, several of whom, by the smell of it, are enjoying high-quality New Jersey marijuana right below us.
People see him out at the edge of the box, and they cheer his dancing and call him vice president (for what it’s worth, he told me he’s not really interested in the job: “I’d rather be here in New Jersey and be governor, but obviously if Governor Romney calls and wants to talk about it, I owe it to him to listen”), and they rain down curses on his political enemies. Many fans also give Christie grief for an incident that took place three weeks earlier, when a photograph of the governor apparently sleeping through a Springsteen song—an affecting, elegiac song called “Rocky Ground,” from his new, fuming-mad anti–Wall Street album, Wrecking Ball—at the Garden pinged around the Internet.
“Hey, Governor, where’s your pillow?” someone from an upper deck screams. It is the sort of taunt he should obviously ignore, but Christie is incapable of being anything other than his obstreperous self. He screams back, “I didn’t fall asleep! How could you even believe that?” He turns to me. “How could they believe that? I was meditating. It’s a very spiritual song.” I believe him. I’ve spent much of my life as a pro-Springsteen extremist (defined here as someone who has spent an unconscionable amount of money on Springsteen tickets and also refuses to contemplate the notion that Bob Dylan might be the better writer), and I have met very few people who love Springsteen the way Christie loves Springsteen.
This concert is the 129th the governor has attended. His four children all went to Springsteen shows in utero. He knows every word to every Springsteen song. He dreams of playing drums in the E Street Band. People like Chris Christie don’t fall asleep at Springsteen shows.
The depth of Christie’s love is noteworthy in part because most politicians—certainly most politicians of national stature—are either too dull or too monomaniacally careerist to maintain fervent emotional relationships with artists. And when they do, the objects of their affection resemble them ideologically or dispositionally—think of the loyalty that Patrick Leahy, the liberal senator from Vermont, has for the Grateful Dead. Christie’s passionate attachment to Bruce Springsteen is something different, and much more complicated.
The E Street Band blasts into “Badlands,” the opening song from the great Born to Run follow-up album, Darkness on the Edge of Town. Christie plays the air drums as 18,000 people—three generations of Jersey Springsteen cultists—dance with no inhibition and not too much skill. (It would be correct for the reader to assume, by the way, that I also jump around like a jackass while Springsteen sings—I’m just another of the many tristate ethnics who are, in Christie’s words, “desperately trying to cling to their 40s.”)
“Badlands” contains many of Springsteen’s great themes—desire, desperation, defiance in the face of cruel fate, the gulf between the American dream and the American reality. But, like many of Springsteen’s most sweeping anthems—“Born in the U.S.A.” being the most obvious—it is a propulsive and stirring song, and the fist-pumping governor seems uncontainable.
Behind us, Christie’s communications director, Maria Comella, whose job it is to contain him, watches with alarm as the governor grabs his community-affairs commissioner, Rich Constable, and his human-services commissioner, Jennifer Velez, and simultaneously bear-hugs and headlocks them. Christie turns from one to the other—his face is maybe three inches from theirs—as he shouts along with Springsteen: “Workin’ in the fields / Till you get your back burned / Workin’ ’neath the wheel / Till you get your facts learned / Baby, I got my facts / Learned real good right now.” He screams the song’s immortal lines: “Poor man wanna be rich / Rich man wanna be king / And a king ain’t satisfied till he rules everything / I wanna go out tonight / I wanna find out what I got.”