A few weeks ago, in a skit on the latest GOP Presidential primary debate, Saturday Night Live used cast members Bobby Moynihan and Pete Davidson as stand-ins for New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Florida Senator Marco Rubio. This weekend, we learned how wrong these two choices were. Unfortunately, the ideal actors were dead: Ernest Borgnine and Frank Sinatra.
Christie’s treatment of the pre-programmed Rubio recalled nothing so much as the (offscreen) flogging administered by Borgnine’s brutal stockade Sgt. Fatso Judson to Sinatra’s scrappy but undersized Angelo Maggio in the 1953 film classic From Here to Eternity.
As Rubio repeated three (it felt like 10) times his contention that Barack Obama was trying to make America like other countries, Christie couldn’t help reveling, with a Fatso-like sadism, over “the memorized 25-second speech”—and supporters of his rival couldn’t help wincing at what they had just witnessed. Their agony was as palpable as the one shown by Montgomery Clift’s Robert E. Lee Prewitt as he listened to his dying Army buddy bewail the whupping he’d just received: “Yesterday it was bad. He hit me, he hit me, he hit me. I had to get out, Prew, I had to get out…”
The stockade, we learn from the adaptation of James Jones’ novel of American servicemen just before Pearl Harbor, is the roughest of places, a Darwinian pen that prisoner newbies enter at their own peril—sort of like this year’s GOP primary season. Rubio’s introduction to the next stage in the Presidential campaign via Christie starkly illuminated another such dark place.
Like Maggio, however, Rubio should have seen it coming. Fatso had warned the rebellious Maggio long before, “Guys like you end up in the stockade sooner or later. Some day you’ll walk in. I’ll be waiting. I’ll show you a couple of things.” Christie had served notice on Rubio, with his pre-debate verbal thrust at “the boy in the bubble,” to expect similarly rough treatment.
Even before that, Rubio and his handlers should have anticipated what could happen if he emerged, as he had started to do after the Iowa caucus, as the alternative to the odious Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. Channel-surfing last night, I came across Rachel Maddow pointing to a column by Erik Eisele on Rubio’s short but unfruitful encounter with the editorial board of the Conway Daily Sun, with one unbelievably prescient passage:
“We had roughly 20 minutes with him [Rubio] on Monday, and in that time he talked about ISIS, the economy, his political record and his background. But it was like watching a computer algorithm designed to cover talking points. He said a lot, but at the same time said nothing. It was like someone wound him up, pointed him towards the doors and pushed play. If there was a human side to the senator, a soul, it didn’t come across through.”
That piece appeared six weeks ago—more than enough time for his campaign manager and staff to prep the candidate about his propensity for canned responses. In fact, as Ezra Klein explained in a piece for Vox, strategists for other GOP candidates had already figured out that he was “a stump speech attached to a pretty face,” lacking experience or even substantial accomplishments.
Fatso acknowledged, with half admiration, that his latest prisoner was a “tough monkey.” Christie was a good deal more condescending. Rubio, he said, was a “nice guy,” but not equipped for the Presidency. Time in the Senate certainly hadn’t equipped the Floridian for his GOP rivals, all of whom swarmed over his stunned body on debate night to deliver pile-on blows.
Maggio bled to death in the dark, all too conscious of what had happened to him. Amazingly, though, in his first 48 hours after the brutal bout with Christie, Marco Roboto (I’m sorry, I mean Rubio) demonstrated to a worldwide audience that he had been left utterly punch-drunk.
That’s really the only way to view his initial flabbergasting contention that there was nothing wrong at all in what happened to him on Saturday night. “Actually, I would pay them to keep running that clip, because that’s what I believe — passionately,” Rubio told George Stephanopoulos on Sunday, adding, “We raised more money last night in the first hour of that debate than any other debate.”
Two days later, it was all a different story. By now, his campaign strategists had wrestled some sense into Rubio’s head. He told supporters that his lackluster fifth-place finish in the New Hampshire primary resulted from the fact that he “did not do well on Saturday night,” but that “it will never happen again.”
That’s what he says now. But as Fatso (I'm sorry, I mean Christie) told reporters after that takedown of his younger opponent: “You remember what Mike Tyson said, that great political philosopher? Everybody’s got a plan until you get punched in the face.”
(The photo accompanying this post, showing Marco Rubio addressing the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland, was taken by Gage Skidmore.)