Chris Christie didn’t want to stop talking about the Yankees. Three hours into his stint filling in for the soon-to-be-retiring New York sports radio legend Mike Francesa on Monday, Christie was practically begging his co-host Evan Roberts to hang out with him after the show. “Come on, Evan,” the New Jersey governor said, half-joking. “We go to Sports Clip, we get our hair cut, we watch the beginning of the Home Run Derby.”
Roberts wasn’t having it. But can you blame Christie? Going home would mean going back to being the most unpopular governor in America and the most unpopular governor in his state’s history. After aerial photos captured Christie catching rays over July 4 weekend, when a government shutdown had closed Jersey’s beaches, his approval rating dropped to 15 percent—far worse than Donald Trump.
It seems crazy now, but four years ago Chris Christie may have been the most popular politician in America. In June 2013, an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that 41 percent of respondents viewed the New Jersey governor positively, compared to just 12 percent who viewed him negatively. (The second-most popular politician? Hillary Clinton.) But that was before it was “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” It was before a dud of a presidential campaign that ended after New Hampshire. And it was before Trump stole and perfected his whole schtick, which is being an unapologetic jerk to everybody.
That schtick is pretty much all Christie has left now. After striking out repeatedly with the Trump administration, his political career is effectively over. Voters have soured on Christie’s arrogant dismissals of his various controversies—in response to beach-gate he said, “That’s just the way it goes: Run for governor, and you can have a residence”—which means talk radio is perhaps the only home left for Christie. It’s one of the few places, after all, that rewards people for being a jerk to strangers. And yet somehow he’s not very good at it.
Mike Francesa’s chair at WFAN should be perfect for Christie. Francesa has spent the last 30 years poring over the often extremely tedious intricacies of New York sports. He has denigrated soccer and praised snowblowers and spent hundreds of hours on the makeup of the Yankees outfield. A kind of one-man argument against the 10,000-hour rule, Francesa is an obsessive—someone who watches every game, who seems to care as much about a middle-reliever as he does about Aaron Judge.
Part of being Mike Francesca is being wrong, and Christie may be the only man in the Tri-state area who gets things as wrong as Francesa. To fill in for Francesa, you must hate and scorn the losers—another checkmark for Christie. You must be petty and self-righteous and treat your callers, who are desperate for your approval, like scum. And you have to be enough of a windbag to talk for four and a half hours a day. (It also helps if you like Trump; Francesa and Christie were both early adopters.)
What has been most surprising about Christie’s talk radio stint is that he wasn’t a jerk, not really. Instead, he was jovial and loose. While he and Roberts opened the show by joking about Christie’s recent trip to the beach, politics only came up a few times. When Roberts joked that Christie’s Twitter account was boring, especially compared to Trump’s, Christie responded, “Is that what you really want my role model to be?”
For the most part, Christie was desperate to talk about anything that wasn’t politics. The problem was that, for all his flair when dealing with combative reporters or political rivals, Christie’s takes were weak as hell. The Yankees need pitching. The Knicks’ problems stem from their moronic owner James Dolan. The Mets need help everywhere, though Jerry Blevins is pretty good, I guess. Being a Knicks fan is worse than being governor of New Jersey. The closest thing to a warm take was that former Cleveland Cavaliers general manager David Griffin wasn’t all that great.
Christie’s appearance on WFAN was widely seen as an audition. But it mostly felt like an escape: Christie got to spend a few hours each day only occasionally being reminded of the fact that he’s a historically terrible governor. And he luxuriated in that, stretching a conversation about who would win the Home Run Derby to interminable lengths.
That seems to have been good for Christie’s mental health, but what’s good for one’s mental health rarely makes for good radio. Christie was surprisingly conflict-averse and boring. Of course, if you host a New York sports radio show for more than 40 seconds, you won’t be able to completely avoid conflict, and Mike from Montclair brought some much-needed heat to the proceedings.
“Governor, next time you want to sit on a beach that is closed to the entire world except you, you put your fat ass in a car and go to one that’s open to all your constituents,” Mike said.
“You know, Mike, I love getting calls from Communists in Montclair,” Christie responded. “You’re swearing on the air and you’re a bum.”
“You have bad optics and you’re a bully,” Mike shot back.
“Oh, bad optics! Mike, I’d love to come look at your optics!” Christie sputtered.
Last year, Christie single-handedly ended Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign in one of the most spectacular hit jobs in American political history. But now, with his approval rating sitting at 15 percent, he can barely handle Mike from Montclair. And this was the highlight of Christie’s first day of talk radio.
What’s most notable about this exchange, though, is that Christie, who was once the most popular politician in America because he was the biggest jerk in politics, wasn’t his usual fiery self. He used to get mad—so mad that he was what people talked about on talk radio. At the height of his fame, Glenn Beck used to devote segment after segment to “Christie porn”: clips of the blowhard governor dressing down the media while Beck gushed. Now, Christie is just going through the motions.
This gets at the biggest problem with Christie on talk radio. Despite their reputation as bare-knuckle brawlers, talk radio hosts are punching bags as well. Some New York legends, like Howard Stern, Bob Grant, and Tom Scharpling, deal with this by punching even harder, turning back-and-forth exchanges with callers into an art form. Some, like Francesa, deal with it by treating their callers with total contempt. But Christie wasn’t there to hit or get hit. He went on WFAN because he wanted to spend four and a half hours being liked by strangers.
This is the saddest thing about Christie’s performance on WFAN and about Christie in general. For years, as Elspeth Reeve wrote in the New Republic in 2015, Christie’s style was his substance: He made his gruff, tough-talking approach to politics seem like it was the equivalent of common-sense conservatism. But then Bridgegate happened and Donald Trump took the wind out of his sails, turning him into an outdated model almost overnight. Christie is like an aging gunslinger—everyone wants to take a shot at him, but he just doesn’t care anymore. He doesn’t want to fight. He just wants to talk about middle-relievers.