Every presidential candidate needs a moment that captures his heart, his guts, what he’s all about. And Chris Christie just had one.
The New Jersey governor is struggling in the polls. He just missed the cut for next week’s prime-time Fox Business debate, along with Mike Huckabee, and that’s a major blow. It could start a cycle of reduced media attention that makes it hard to climb in the polls, which makes it hard to make the next debate.
But in six and a half minutes at a New Hampshire town hall, Christie reminded everyone why he was once deemed the party’s hottest presidential prospect.
Christie was talking about drug addiction. It was real and it was raw.
The Huffington Post shot video of the speech, creating a cinema verite feel, and it’s been viewed online more than 5 million times. I’ve watched it several times, and it’s riveting.
Politicians are all adept at faking sincerity, but this is deeply personal.
Christie began by talking about his mother being addicted to cigarettes, trying to kick the habit, and being diagnosed with lung cancer at 71. “No one came to me and said, 'Hey listen, your mother was dumb…She's getting what she deserves,'" Christie said.
Then he launched into the tale of a law school pal who was so successful that everyone else was jealous of him. But then he hurt his back, a doctor prescribed Percocet, and a 10-year struggle ensued. His wife wound up divorcing him. Christie was among those who staged an intervention to get the man into rehab.
“By every measure that we define success in this country, this guy had it. Great-looking guy, well educated, great career, plenty of money, beautiful loving wife, beautiful children, great house—he had everything. He’s a drug addict. And he couldn’t get help, and he’s dead.” Christie later added: "There but for the grace of God go I."
This was the guy who the Democrats feared in 2012, before Bridgegate took its toll and Donald Trump stole some of his thunder.
So much of politics is artifice, of having your voice break at the same time in a speech you give again and again. Maybe we in the media encourage that by pouncing on candidates when they say something that is off-script and off-key.
Say what you will about Christie, but no one can doubt that he was speaking from the heart.
Carly Fiorina also struck an emotional chord at the CNN debate, talking about losing an adopted daughter to drugs. And coincidence or not, Jeb Bush has just spoken out in personal terms about his daughter’s battle with addiction.
“She went through hell,” Bush said. “And so did her mom and so did her dad. And it was in a private setting, but then it became very public when I was governor. And it wasn’t easy.” (This was also to HuffPost.)
This may or may not lead to better policies for treating drug users and drug addicts. It’s obviously a difficult problem to crack.
For Christie, being relegated to the undercard debate in Milwaukee next Tuesday is a major setback. But he may have just performed a major public service.
Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. ET). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.