I have learned two things covering politics. One, first impressions are often right. John Edwards is slick. Hillary Clinton is expedient. W. was in over his head. Barack Obama is too much in his head. Chris Christie can be a bully.
Politicians are surrounded by spinners who work tirelessly to shape our perceptions of the characters of their bosses. Pols know how to polish scratches in their image with sin-and-redemption news conferences, TV confessionals and self-deprecating turns at hoary Washington press banquets. As Jimmy Carter spokesman Jody Powell joked, if Hitler and Eva Braun came on stage at the Gridiron Dinner and mocked themselves in a song-and-dance routine, Washington chatterers would say, “Oh, they’re not so bad.”
After being showered with spin, you say to yourself, maybe that first impression was wrong. But often it isn’t.
Christie’s two-hour “I am not a bully” news conference was operatic about an act of malice so petty it did not merit being called “authentic Jersey corruption,” as New Jersey native Jon Stewart said, adding that it was unworthy of a state with a severed horse head on its flag.
If you’re going to wage a vendetta, at least make it a well-thought-out one. How can Christie & Co. run a national campaign when they can’t even aim straight? How moronic to think the mayor of Fort Lee would get blamed for problems on a bridge that everyone knows is controlled by the Port Authority. If you want to be malicious, it would be so easy to put a project close to the mayor’s heart on hold for a few months or redirect 60 state snowplows the night before a storm.
The governor groveled to New Jersey residents after his aides so gleefully burned them (even joking about children being late for the first day of school because of the orchestrated gridlock on the George Washington Bridge).
After zapping Obama for being so clueless that he couldn’t find “the light switch of leadership” in a dark room, Christie is trying to salvage his once blazing career by claiming he was in a dark room, clueless to the bogus traffic study masking a revenge plan that top aides were executing in plain sight.
The epic news conference felt like a scene out of the governor’s favorite movie, “The Godfather”: Christie offering his tremulous, grandiose, self-pitying public apologia while in cross-cut scenes, his henchmen were getting rid of those who threatened his operation.
Calling his deputy chief of staff Bridget Anne Kelly “stupid” and “deceitful,” he threw her off the bridge, without talking to her himself or, as Niall O’Dowd slyly wrote in IrishCentral.com, even extending the courtesy of the old Irish wedding night admonition: “Brace yourself, Bridget.”
He also disappeared his two-time campaign manager, Bill Stepien. His cronies at the Port Authority, Bill Baroni and David Wildstein, fell on their swords last month.
Christie took a line straight out of the Robert DeNiro handbook, lamenting: “I am heartbroken that someone who I permitted to be in that circle of trust for the last five years betrayed my trust.”
Yet we know workplaces are chameleon-like. I once had a publisher who loved the Audubon Society, so we ran a lot of bird stories. I had another boss who wore suspenders, so guys in the office started wearing suspenders.
Shades of Watergate: Since they were headed toward a landslide, you’d think the Christie crew would have been in a more benevolent mood. But given the governor’s past flashes of vindictive behavior, this was probably a wink-wink, nod-nod deal. Question: Who will rid me of this meddlesome mayor? Answer: The “little Serbian” has been dealt with.
The second thing I’ve learned from covering politics is that we can debate ad nauseam whether Christie was telling the truth, shading it or bluffing. But we can’t gauge that from his impressive, marathon Trenton performance art.
No matter how jaded we feel in the news business, we are still suckers for the big lie. It’s tough to wrap your head around a stunning level of duplicity.
I learned this lesson the hard way covering Paul Tsongas’ presidential surge in 1992. When The Times’ Dr. Larry Altman came on the campaign trail to interview Tsongas, he was skeptical about the candidate’s claim that his lymphoma had not recurred. I told Altman it was impossible for me to believe that Tsongas, who prided himself on his honesty and who was so straightforward he was mocked as “Saint Paul” by Clinton aides, could lie about that — especially given the profound political consequences.
Altman was right, as Tsongas later admitted. The candidate and his doctors at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston repeatedly said he was cancer-free when he was not.
A cascade of subsequent outraged denials about transgressive behavior delivered with bravado and finger wagging, from Gary Hart to Bill Clinton to John Edwards to Anthony Weiner, has persuaded me that politicians — who are narcissists and, in essence, actors stuck in the same role — can persuasively tell the big lie if they believe their futures are on the line.
The Christie saga is still unraveling. Maybe he was a dupe in the dark. Maybe the man in the fleece jacket is fleecing us. Let’s just say, I’m not yet permitting him in my circle of trust.