Gov. Chris Christie had the best day he's going to have for a long time on Jan. 9. He had two hours to give his side of the lane closings on the George Washington Bridge that gridlocked Fort Lee, N.J., for four days in September.
With his usual bluster, he described all the ways that he hadn't been involved in the closing. The abject stupidity of others was to blame and the time he spent on the explanation made him seem forthcoming. By the end, he had reassured those who wanted to be that he wasn't involved and exhausted the rest of us.
But he certainly didn't lay the matter to rest. Next come the subpoenas, the aides with their lawyers, the politicians with their agendas and the skittish who will blurt things out. Mayors all over the state are looking back at the governor's decisions that went against their cities to see if any were political payback. And the onetime friends he dissed big time? How did David Wildstein, who until last month served in the Christie administration, feel when the governor shoved him under the bus while correcting the record on their putative high school friendship? “I was the class president and athlete. I don't know what David was doing during that period of time.”
Suspicion that Christie used funds for Hurricane Sandy relief to burnish his own image is also coming to a head. Federal auditors are examining the governor's use of $25 million in Sandy funds, in particular a $4.7 million contract to produce tourism ads featuring the governor's family. A bid for work that didn't show the Christies and cost just $2.5 million wasn't selected.
This gets to Christie as presidential timber. Any misuse of the disaster funds would be, well, a disaster for Christie whose huge re-election victory and tail wind as the Republican presidential nominee are in large part the result of his perceived handling of the storm. Christie's one-time mentor and occasional critic, former New Jersey Governor Tom Kean, cut to the chase with his question about Christie's handling of the bridge fracas, “Do you really want that in your president?”
Looking at the news conference a second time, I would say no. It was almost laughably Christie, and barely gubernatorial, much less presidential. We (I) criticize President Barack Obama for not emoting enough, but after taking in the Full Christie, we find much to be grateful for in Obama's restraint. Imagine Obama saying how sad, sad, sad he was as he cycled through multiple stages of grief over the failed rollout of Obamacare.
Christie was emotionally unhinged to the point of praising his own contrition. Word for word, he spent more time on his own hurt feelings than he did empathizing with those who were truly hurt by the bridge delays, including children and emergency vehicles.
Obama said the unready health-care website was “on me.” Would it have been better for anyone had the president gone on about how “heartbreaking” the situation was for him and how he had been “embarrassed and humiliated” and “betrayed.” Obama brought someone in to fix the website (which eventually got up and running), and then hired a new contractor.
Presidents can't afford to lose emotional self-control the way Christie did. What Christie missed in his presentation was the obvious truth that when you fail, it isn't about you but about the people who suffer from your mistake.
In the next few weeks, as more emails emerge and investigations proceed, we will learn what Christie, the self-styled hands-on governor, wasn't curious enough to find out for himself. He knew early on there was no traffic study under way that could explain the lane closures. He had staff question staff about the incident and, predictably, they knew nothing about nothing. Still, it's a safe bet that they thought the boss wouldn't be displeased to know that they were inflicting a little gridlock in Fort Lee, whose Democratic mayor had refused to endorse Christie in the election.
Christie fancies himself a guy who sweats the small stuff. He cut off a state grant to a Rutgers University professor who supported a redistricting map that favored Democrats, and disinvited from a state event a politician who criticized his handling of the 2010 blizzard. But the cause of a four-day epic traffic jam in his state? Not interested. What in the world was his staff thinking? He didn't ask. They lie, they're gone, he explained. There was no time “to get to the underlying conduct.”
Although he has few allies, no one has abandoned him yet. Politicians make simple calculations. They'll wait to see if there's a smoking traffic cone. The governor will give the State of the State address Tuesday and go to Florida to raise money as chairman of the Republican Governors Association over the weekend.
But the Christie brand is compromised. It's going to be harder to get away with yelling at teachers or telling stupid people to get the hell off the beach.
Rising in politics is easy, resurrection almost impossible. Just ask Newt Gingrich, another Republican would-be president. One moment he was riding high, touted on the cover of Time magazine as “King of the Hill”; the next thing he knew, he was skulking out of Washington having shut down the government because he didn't like his seat assignment on Air Force One.
The George Washington Bridge is open again, but for Christie, the way out of New Jersey may be closed for good.