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Commentary: No bullies in the bully pulpit, please

by on January 20, 2014 10:20 AM

Maybe there’s a way to give New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie a pass on what some are calling “Bridgegate,” but it won’t be easy.

His staff’s transgression was serious. Some might dismiss the four days of traffic havoc in Fort Lee, N.J., as petty political hijinks, but they didn’t seem that way to the citizens who were caught in the snarl caused by the closure of several toll lanes leading onto the George Washington Bridge.

This was much more than a trivial, annoying inconvenience. Clogged streets slow down emergency responders, and children marooned on school buses is a recipe for disaster. Let’s face it: When public resources are used in any way to settle a petty political score, well, it doesn’t get much worse than that.

In his news conference last week, Gov. Christie said that he was saddened and humiliated by the event, that two of the perpetrators had been fired, and that, in the tradition of all political apologizers, the buck stops with him and so on. I’m inclined to take Christie’s contrition more or less at face value, but others have pointed out that, despite his apologies, the nearly two-hour news conference was narcissistically focused on his own feelings of humiliation, sadness and betrayal.

And amid his avowals of deep sadness over the episode, anger and irritation didn’t seem too far below the surface.

Neither did a hint of denial and rationalization: Maybe there really was a “traffic study” somehow connected with the lane closings, he said hopefully. All of this looks bad. Nevertheless, later on National Public Radio, Republican strategist Mike Murphy said that the episode would not be “fatal” to Christie’s presidential aspirations.

But shouldn’t it be? At best, Christie was naive about the “circle of trust” with which he had surrounded himself, which should call his managerial competence and judgment into question.

But the real problem is that Christie has taken pains to cultivate his brand as a straight-talking, hardball-playing, no-holds-barred tough guy.

This persona, which I suspect is not an act, appeals to some voters who are attracted to a candidate who “tells it like it is.” But even if Christie is as innocent of his staff’s blunder as he presented himself to be, is this the personality and temperament that we want in a president? Political philosophy aside, often this sort of tough-talking bluster is mere cover for a lack of real ideas and solutions.

Modern problems and politics are complicated and subtle, and they won’t be resolved by a quick retreat into hard-nosed, bombastic certainty.

Furthermore, Christie’s bluntness may play well in New Jersey and in much of the United States, but it’s entirely unsuitable for confronting international issues.

From 1907 to 1909, President Theodore Roosevelt sent 16 battleships and attendant vessels, the “Great White Fleet,” on a global circumnavigation intended, in part, as an in-your-face demonstration of America’s new naval power, a public assertion of the consequences that other nations would face if they interfered with the United States.

Given the century of war that followed, this voyage may or may not have been a good idea, but at the time Roosevelt could get away with throwing America’s weight around publicly.

Things have changed. The powder keg is much bigger and more explosive, and caution, deliberation and diplomacy are called for. Modern nations — China, Iran, even our Western European allies — will not respond to Christie’s bluntness or to his natural instinct toward sarcasm and condescension, nor to someone who, as Christie revealed last week, refuses to hide his emotions.

Roosevelt famously said the presidency is a “bully pulpit,” using the term in a much different sense than Christie did last week. But if you have to say “I am not a bully,” well, you just might be a bully. Fine, but you cannot also be president.

John M. Crisp teaches English at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. His column is distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.
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