Friday, January 10, 2014

Chris Christie the Bully faces his political comeuppance over GWB scandal

By Michael J.W. Stickings

It's a scandal that no amount of his usual swagger and sarcasm can put to rest. And so New Jersey Governor (and, to some, leading Republican light in 2016) Chris Christie put his tail between his legs yesterday and came out to address the media with the appearance of a humbled man:

In a remarkable day of swirling political drama, Gov. Chris Christie tried on Thursday to control the damage from revelations that his administration ordered the revenge-closings of traffic lanes at the George Washington Bridge by firing a top aide, cutting ties with a longtime political adviser and repeatedly apologizing in a nearly two-hour news conference.

Sounding somber and appearing contrite, the normally garrulous Mr. Christie said he had had no advance knowledge of the lane closings and had been "humiliated" by the entire episode.

"I am a very sad person today," the governor said. "I am heartbroken that someone I permitted to be in that circle of trust for the past five years betrayed that trust."

Was he genuinely apologetic? I would suggest that he was politically apologetic, that is, apologetic because the scandal has grown into a political disaster for him, apologetic because his political life demands it. And indeed, as New York magazine's Adam Martin points out, his entire statement was oddly passive in its presentation, as if this is all happening to him, as if he's just the victim. Note that he's "sad" and "heartbroken." Oh, really? And somehow that's really what this is all about, not the bullying message sent to the the mayor of Fort Lee, not all those people who found themselves trapped in the bullying tactics that are central to Christie's character and career? 

Indeed, as New York's Benjamin Wallace-Wells writes, Christie's statement was deeply narcissistic:

Everything about the episode — the bullying of a Democratic mayor, Christie's favorite class of enemy, the politics of vendetta — seems a cousin to things the governor himself has actually done. Christie's political rise — in a very ideological party, in a very ideological age — has been to return politics to a vernacular of personality, to establish something like a cult around himself. Cults are always undone by the zeal of the cultists. The psychological drama of the George Washington Bridge lane closures does not lie in the betrayal of the governor by those very close to him. It lies in what those very close to him thought the governor might approve of, enjoy, in the callousness they displayed when they were mimicking him.

And therein lies the key point of this whole scandal: Did Christie really not know about this? Was he really betrayed by those close to him? Maybe he didn't know -- though it's hard to believe he didn't at least have a sense of what was going on and why -- but even if he didn't, and even if he continues to point the finger at others and even gets away with it, this didn't happen in a vacuum. It happened in a culture of bullying that very much of Christie's own making, and so even if he didn't know about it, let alone approve it, he essentially created the conditions for it to happen. That's Wallace-Wells's point. This is all so Chris Christie -- it has Chris Christie's fingerprints all over it, and it happened because of Chris Christie whether he was actually in on it or not.

Which is to say, the George Washington Bridge scandal encapsulates the essence of the politics of Chris Christie. Whether it irreparably hurts his 2016 aspirations remains to be seen, and I suspect it won't on its own, but he won't be able to prevent it from reinforcing the narrative of Christie as the bullying governor of a seemingly corrupt state who pushes his weight around with vindictiveness towards and contempt for those who dare cross him.

Chris Christie makes for good television, much like a similar New Jerseyan, Tony Soprano, but it's a long way from media darlinghood to the presidency. And ultimately, I suspect, Christie will be unable to escape his bullying political character, the defining characteristic of his politics, the essence of his political nature.

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